In a year where every other film is seemingly based on a true story, Wildcat emerges as a well-intentioned but ultimately muddled endeavour. Premiering at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, the film is directed by Ethan Hawke and stars his daughter, Maya Hawke, as the iconic Southern writer Flannery O’Connor. Wildcat attempts to be both a biopic of O’Connor and an anthology of her short stories, a dual narrative structure that proves to be its Achilles’ heel.
The film begins with O’Connor’s return to her home state of Georgia at the age of 24 following a lupus diagnosis. As she grapples with her mortality, Catholic faith, and isolation, the film dramatizes some of her most famous short stories, including Everything That Rises Must Converge, The Life You Save May Be Your Own, and Good Country People. Laura Linney co-stars as O’Connor’s mother, Regina, who also morphs into various characters from the short stories, offering a multi-faceted portrayal that serves as one of the film’s few consistent strengths.
“Wildcat assumes a level of familiarity with O’Connor’s work that not all viewers may possess.”
The film’s ambition is evident, as is the palpable affection Ethan and Maya Hawke have for O’Connor and her work. However, this intense passion seems to have clouded the filmmakers’ judgment, leading to a lack of focus that hampers the narrative. The film oscillates between O’Connor’s personal life and her literary creations, never quite settling into a coherent rhythm.
This indecisiveness results in a disjointed viewing experience, making it difficult for the audience to connect emotionally with either the biographical elements or the dramatized stories. For people not familiar with the work of O’Connor, these transitions can seem jarring, taking away from the emotional pathos that the prior scene was slowly building toward.
I will admit before watching Wildcat, I was not well-versed in the works of Flannery O’Connor, and this could be one of the problems with my viewing experience. Wildcat assumes a level of familiarity with O’Connor’s work that not all viewers may possess. Without at least a rudimentary understanding of her stories, you will likely find yourself lost amid the rapid transitions from one narrative thread to another. This is a disservice to O’Connor’s rich storytelling, which is complex enough to warrant full-length adaptations of its own.
Visually, the film does offer some beautiful imagery, and there’s a genuine admiration for O’Connor’s struggle to remain true to her unique voice. Yet, these merits are not enough to save the film from its structural and thematic shortcomings. Wildcat would have benefited greatly from a more focused approach—either commit to a biopic that delves deeply into O’Connor’s life, challenges, and influences or create an anthology film that does justice to the depth and complexity of her stories, trying to do both ultimately hurts the film, and the stories it is trying to convey.
“In the case of Wildcat, the sum of its parts is unfortunately less than its whole, leaving us with a film that is as confounding as it is disappointing.”
Despite its earnestness and evident love for its subject matter, Wildcat is a film that dilutes the impact of its biographical and literary elements. The result is a film that, while not devoid of merit, struggles to rise to the level of its ambitions. It serves as a cautionary tale for filmmakers: sometimes, less is indeed more, and a singular focus can often yield a more compelling and emotionally resonant narrative. In the case of Wildcat, the sum of its parts is unfortunately less than its whole, leaving us with a film that is as confounding as it is disappointing.