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Snarling, Fangled Monster

11/10, City Stage, 1 p.m.
Director: Ya’Ke Smith • 86 min.
$10 ind. ticket

Graphic and violent: Eugene Lee plays Bishop Anderson in Ya’Ke Smith’s powerful movie “Wolf”. Courtesy photo

I’ll be honest: I chose to preview this film exclusively because the title was similar to my last name. I didn’t peruse any other reviews, or browse the synopsis on IMDB—no investigation whatsoever.

I had no idea what I was getting into.

Perhaps it’s best I didn’t, because I probably wouldn’t have watched it if I was aware beforehand that “Wolf” deals with child molestation in the setting of organized religion (I’m usually a comedy guy). As a result, I would have missed one of the most powerful movies I’ve ever watched.

“Wolf” tells the story of an African-American family as they deal with the discovery that the family minister has been sexually abusing their son. As they try to cope with the news and pursue legal action, even darker issues come to light.

“I grew up in church,” Ya’ke Smith, director, writer and producer, says in a promotional video. “I have been pastored by great ministers. But I’ve also seen how some people have used religion as a way to further their own agenda.”

“Wolf” is a gripping, hyper-emotional drama that invades and violates personal mental spaces differently than any other film. It’s full of surprises. Smith reveals backstory to advance the plot—or rather the viewer’s understanding of it—with tact and purpose. Throughout the film, there are shocking, “oh, shit!” moments of complete reversal, which usually came right as I began to believe I understood what was happening. As I watched, the moments often accompanied me pausing the movie, yelling obscenities in disbelief before rewinding it to double-check what I had witnessed.

The film is aesthetically shot by director of photography Yuta Yamaguchi. His style is distinctly his own, using off-balance composition mingled with unconventional framing and sublime establishing shots. He creates a unique product that is simultaneously startling and beautiful.

The acting, on the whole, is tremendous. Jordan Cooper delivers a subtle first performance as the protagonist Carl Stevens. During most of the film, he’s quiet and understated, but he juxtaposes moments of emotional desperation as the script demands. His father, Jaymond (Shelton Jolivette), is a truck driver trying to fill an emotional void that has arisen between him and his family due to his constant absence from home. Jolivette shows off his range in this role, and he plays both humorous and intense scenes with ease. He also serves as a foil for Nona (Mikala Gibson), his wife and Carl’s mother, and there are some very nice moments where the viewer catches a glimpse of their relationship. Gibson is a believable somewhat-single parent, studying for a psych degree while trying to balance her family and her religion while the plot unfolds.

But the best work in the film comes from Eugene Lee, who plays Bishop Anderson. He balances the line between good and bad guy. Even later in the film, when the horrifying things he’s done comes to light, audiences can’t help but sympathize with him. Some of his most powerful scenes are with Jaymond; Lee plays Bishop with complex, conflicting emotions. I surmise he is the wolf in sheep’s clothing to which the title refers.

Though some of the writing feels forced at times, nearly bordering on cliché, the “oh, shit!” moments turn it around. Audiences may squirm through the first 20 or so minutes of the plodding exposition, but soon after they’ll truly start to care for the characters.

The overarching narrative is brilliant and is told with a perfect mixture of suspense and drama, but on the scene level I found myself groaning at some dialogue between minor characters. Other times, like the family interactions near the end, the conversations stayed honest and flowing. I suppose the main element I longed for during “Wolf” was consistency; the wooden dialogue didn’t match how well the story was told otherwise.

Graphic and violent at times, “Wolf” certainly appeals to the mature audience. Scenes involving both rape and molestation appear in the film, and they are portrayed with brutal, stomach-turning honesty (I even had to pause in some moments). Part of that might be due to the fact that, although our culture has become acclimated to onscreen violence, molestation is still (thankfully) relatively new ground in popular cinema. “Wolf” does a phenomenal job of portraying both the action and the psychological effects on the characters with reflection and consequence.

It ends on a hopeful note. More so, it will leave audiences with a new perspective on the power of cinema. Go see “Wolf,” but be prepared for a snarling, fanged monster of a movie.

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