This review of “Wildhood” was first published July 17, 2022, before its opening in Los Angeles.
Rather than a run-of-the-mill coming-of-age road trip, “Wildhood” is a young protagonist’s quest to bring harmony to the intersections of his identity. From writer-director Bretten Hannam — a Two-Spirit, non-binary individual — the wandering drama unfolds across the Mi’kmaq people’s territory in the Maritime Provinces of Eastern Canada.
To examine the queer experience through the lens of indigenous youth, Hannam centers on Lincoln, aka Link (Phillip Lewitski), a mixed-race teen who dyes his hair blond and doesn’t speak Mi’kmaq, the language of his mother’s people. On many fronts, he doesn’t truly know who he is yet. But the key to attaining some clarity, he finds out, has long been denied to him.
Link’s abusive and homophobic father kept secret the letters his mother sent him over the years. The realization that she didn’t die, as he had been told, sends Link into an angry frenzy. With his younger half-brother Travis (Avery Winters-Anthony) by his side, Link runs away from home with only the clothes on his back and an envelope with an address.
Along the way, they meet Pamsay (Joshua Odjick), a Mi’kmaw adolescent shunned by his family for being two-spirit and yet profoundly connected to his indigenous identity. As a nomadic pow-wow dancer, Pamsay lends his talent, in beautiful and brightly colored regalia, to celebrations across various communities. His own wound of rejection prompts him to join the brothers on their search for Link’s mother, first on his truck and later on foot.
Lewitski’s effectively subdued performance simmers in anger and distrust until Link’s tough-guy presence begins to lose ground to Pamsay’s patient attentiveness and the space he provides him to experience joy, and even dance. The attraction between them is palpable, but so is Link’s fear to give in to the romantic connection. But as he grapples with internalized homophobia, an interest in the culture stolen from him sprouts.
Selective in the use of subtitles that explicitly translate the Mi’kmaq language, the director chooses a more intuitive approach by allowing the characters to speak in their native tongue and for us to only listen, before the character repeats the line in English for Link to comprehend. In one scene, Hannam uses the subtitles to let us into Pamsay’s kind words for Link while concealing them from him. Other than an opening title card on First Nations in Canada, thankfully there’s no explanatory dialogue simplifying the Mi’kmaq worldview.
But for all its virtues, “Wildhood” can’t escape some familiar tropes about domestic trauma and wounds of rejection often present as the context in stories of marginalized LGBTQ+ people. While these increase the emotional stakes of the narrative and bond the young lovers, they at times take away from the more experiential aspects of the filmmaking.
With a rustic gaze keen on unembellished rural landscapes, cinematographer Guy Godfree (“Maudie”) captures the essence of the film’s title, magnifying our perception of the nature the travelers come across and following them in their rowdy escapade with a dynamic camera. There’s a youthful melancholy to the magic-hour shots in the middle of a forest that clashes with the rush of energy of Link and Pamsay’s naked physicality as they run into the ocean or practice a pow-wow dance one early morning.
Through the many stops, Lincoln and Travis’ relationship remains mostly neglected. Only one brief scene involving the siblings emotionally surpasses their routine banter, when the young boy tacitly reassures Link that he supports him despite their father’s hatred. That Travis’ mother isn’t around either, and that he can’t fully comprehend Link’s need to engage with his indigenous background, are topics that would have benefited the piece if discussed.
Renowned Native American actor Michael Greyeyes (“Wild Indian”) features in a small part as a temporary mentor who helps the trio obtain clues as to Link’s mother’s whereabouts. Hannam writes most of the interactions between the kids and the indigenous adults that steer them in the right geographical direction to resolve organically and not as opportunities to preach or deliver dull messaging.
“Wildhood” is at its most potent in the lyrical, music-driven interludes, even if the stirring score exceeds the necessary impetus of the sequence, and when the atmosphere feels conducive to contemplation — for example, a passage in an abandoned residence that’s at once peaceful and haunting. And though the ending leaves most narrative loose ends untied, there’s a nurturing wisdom Link acquires from those he meets over the course of the ever-spontaneous journey. Plenty remains unsolved, but he knows himself as a person more than ever before.
Two-thirds into the film, once the mutual attraction between Link and Pamsay is no longer secret, a lovemaking scene encapsulates the spirituality of “Wildhood.” Under the delicate glow of moonlight, they play in the river with flirtatious intent. Desire soon takes over as water droplets caress their bodies, only visible in silhouette. The visual implication of the imagery is that their love is as natural and sinless as the land on which they stand.
“Wildhood” begins streaming Friday on Hulu.