Joining “Fish Tank” and “Precious” in 2009’s prominent mini-genre of stories about troubled girls and the mothers who hate them, “Wolfy” marks a startling debut for writer-director Vassily Sigarev, as well as for fireball actress Yana Troyanova, on whose (presumably rather miserable) childhood experiences Sigarev based his script. Tracing the one-way love between an introverted young girl (Polina Plutchek) and her alcoholic, frequently absent mother (Troyanova) from birth to teenage years, the film is necessarily bleak, but escapes standard kitchen-sink territory via Sigarev’s surreal, often stunningly sensual visual sensibility that lifts it into the realm of modern fairy tale.
A throat-grabbing opening sequence sets the tone for what will follow, as Troyanova’s heavily pregnant character — a lurid vision throughout the film in orange hair and electric-blue dress — stumbles across a snowy plain, pursued by cops after a knife attack. As she goes into premature labor on the ground, blood and snow are married in close-up, and the child’s journey into the world continues along a similar balance of violence and purity. (The girl develops a fascination with death, expounded in the film’s most fascinating stretch, where she forms a spiritual friendship with a young boy buried in the local cemetery.)
You’ll have gathered by now that the film isn’t a particularly gentle watch, and Sigarev makes no concessions towards the redemptive impulses that usually color the final act of such stories — we fear as much for mother and daughter alike when we leave them as when we meet them. But Troyanova’s electric portrayal, by turns tragic and terrifying, of a woman who was never emotionally equipped to raise a child keeps our sympathies curiously on edge, and she’s well countered by Plutchek’s refreshingly uncoached intensity.
I enjoy basking in the starry glow of George Clooney as much as the next man, but “Wolfy” is the kind of unnerving discovery that festivals are really about.