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Wildcat review: Ethan Hawke's latest is a muddled mix of Flannery O'Connor biography and adaptation

Wildcat review: Ethan Hawke's latest is a muddled mix of Flannery O'Connor biography and adaptation

There's an entire subset of bookish young women who've gone through a Flannery O'Connor phase (it usually comes somewhere right before or after the Sylvia Plath obsession).

With Wildcat, Maya Hawke gets to channel that literary phase into a big-screen story that is half Flannery O'Connor biopic, half adaptation of O'Connor's short stories. Directed by Maya's father, Ethan Hawke, who co-wrote the film with Shelby Gaines, Maya plays both the iconic Southern writer and various iterations of O'Connor's characters.

Wildcat follows O'Connor, beginning with her return home to Georgia at the age of 24 and her subsequent lupus diagnosis. As O'Connor struggles with her mortality, her Catholic faith, and her isolation, she finds an outlet in her writing and we see many of her short stories come to life, including "Everything That Rises Must Converge," "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," and "Good Country People."

Laura Linney costars as O'Connor's mother, Regina, who also shifts with chameleonic ease into a new character with each short story. The most interesting aspect of this dual narrative structure is the different facets of Regina that Linney embodies in each sequence, a living, breathing representation of the ways writers infuse aspects of their own lives into their work.

Wildcat
Wildcat

Good Country Pictures Maya Hawke in 'Wildcat'

Wildcat is a passion project for Ethan and Maya Hawke, generated by their affectionate father-daughter relationship and their mutual appreciation of O'Connor, as they shared at a post-screening Q&A at the Telluride Film Festival. Hawke effectively directs his daughter through a gauntlet of a performance, but one wonders if their intense passion for the subject matter prevented them from seeing the forest for the trees. The film suffers from a lack of focus, ping-ponging between O'Connor's personal life and the content of her stories. The result is, sadly, a muddled mess.

The movie would be better if it had decisively opted for one approach — biopic or short story anthology. The choice to do both induces whiplash, making it challenging to connect to any of the storylines because we spend so little time in each sequence before jumping to the next (not to mention that without at least a rudimentary knowledge of O'Connor's writing, a viewer is likely to get lost). It's a disservice to O'Connor's work as well, given that her stories are so rich a single one of them could fill the running time of a feature film on its own merits.

There's beautiful imagery at play here throughout, and admiration for O'Connor's struggle to stay true to herself and the strangeness of her work seeps from the movie in every frame. Despite its shortcomings, Wildcat possesses a palpable love for the subject matter. But passion alone does not a good film make, and everything that rises to the forefront of this film does not, at all, converge. Grade: C+

Wildcat does not yet have a distributor or release date; after its Telluride Film Festival debut, it will premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 11.

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