de facto film reviews 2 stars

Wildcat, director and co-writer Ethan Hawke’s new biopic about the life and work of author Flannery O’Connor, lacks the unique qualities of its subject’s prose, while draining her life of any real interest. This is done, apparently, to show how art and life are connected, but also just to present a real-life story differently than you may have seen before. The result is a movie that has some nice, if basic, period detail, and a strong, if ultimately unremarkable central performance by Maya Hawke, the director’s daughter. The approach also creates confusion, as the same actors play different parts, sometimes part of the real story of OConnor, and sometimes the characters in her stories.

After about an hour of viewing this film, I had felt that I had seen enough to know what was going on, and that was a feeling I had been having a good quarter hour. That the film juxtaposes art and life is no problem, but that it does so in a way that is not as clever as it believes it is, definitely is. The best and funniest bit is when a racist character, which we believe is strongly drawn from someone in O’Connor’s life, imagines meeting Jesus, who offers her a rebirth, as one of two terrible-to her-options.

Wildcat (2023)

Courtesy Oscilloscope Laboratories

The best parts of the film, in fact, are either the parts about OConnor battling to get her work published or the sequences with Steve Zahn, who has become a rather strong character actor over the last decade.  His work here, as a one-armed migrant, hints at a fascinating story the movie unfortunately does not fully pursue. Hawke, who is a fine actor, and wonderful writer and director, could have done more with these sequences. At times, you get the sense of both a reverence and irreverence for O’Connor and her work.

Indeed, based on his work with Richard Linklater, one might have expected a deeper examination of themes, as well as place and space. While none of this is poorly done, and it is all handled with intelligence, there is something slightly…light, or empty about the film. It is apparent that Linklater is an enormous influence on Hawke, and Hawke, in turn, has signs of becoming a superb film maker in his own right. This, I believe, will become a minor work in his future oeuvre. One thing we can be sure of is his ability to draw performances from actors, chiefly his daughter, Maya.

It would be fair, in fact, to call this a bit of a father/daughter project, as both seem to throw themselves into the material, with Maya creating a majority of the interest in the film, which is quite a feat, given the cast her father has surrounded her with. This is not a case of nepotism, because so good is she as O’Connor, that you cannot imagine another actress in the part. So perfectly tuned to the unusual patterns of O’Connor’s work, and yet so opposite them, is Hawke as an artist, that perhaps only he might have dared to make this film.

WILDCATS is now playing in limited theaters