On film, two depictions of Alaska seem to prevail: the postcard-perfect nature documentaries, with their sweeping helicopter shots of pristine glaciers and sped-up aurora footage, and the increasingly idiotic "reality" shows, in which Alaska is a deadly wasteland populated by trigger-happy morons.
The Alaska presented to Outsiders on screen is almost always a heavily edited backdrop painted to suit whatever version of the Last Frontier the director thinks people want to see. Which is what makes "Wildlike" so refreshing.
The film, which opened the Anchorage International Film Festival last year, follows Mackenzie, a jaded teenager from Seattle who's been shipped up to Juneau to stay with her uncle while her mother is in rehab. Mackenzie's situation spirals out of control after her uncle sexually abuses her and she sets out for herself, eventually latching onto a hiker named Bart and accompanying him through Denali National Park.
Director Frank Hall Green rounds out all the characters in the film -- Alaska among them -- with nuance and restraint. Shot in Juneau, Whittier, Anchorage and Denali (as well as the Parks and Marine highways), the film conveys the realities of Alaska to those Outside while still remaining genuine and familiar to Alaskans. The succinct visuals and diverse locations lack the touristy heavy-handedness many of us have become accustomed to seeing. Like Alaska itself, "Wildlike" is vast and unpredictable, at turns gorgeous and tragic, isolating and exhilarating.
Ella Purnell delivers a powerful performance as the lost but resourceful Mackenzie, though her silent brooding becomes tedious at times. In fact, the film as a whole could stand to brood a little less; although the plot is full of subtle beauty, it's probably not substantial enough to warrant a running time of an hour and 45 minutes.
But the occasional dragging is offset by the grounded performances of Purnell and Bruce Greenwood as Bart, Mackenzie's reluctant protector. Greenwood is totally believable in this challenging role, and it's satisfying to see how his character evolves along with Mackenzie. A lineup of carefully rendered supporting characters adds additional depth.
The film's faithful, unflinching depiction of our state and frank treatment of sexual assault make "Wildlike" a genuine Alaska classic. At a time when Alaska is struggling with how it presents itself to the world and how it deals with its darkest plight, "Wildlike" offers a balanced but hopeful outlook.
'WILDLIKE' opens Sept. 25 at The Valley Cinema in Wasilla and Sept. 28 at Bear Tooth Theatrepub in Anchorage and Gold Town Nickelodeon in Juneau.
This review was originally published Dec. 14, 2014.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing