While the Wolf’s Away, the debut from Joseph Hemsani, is a strange collision of motifs and references. With significant echoes to the work of fellow countryman Guillermo Del Toro, this coming of age-meets dark thriller at times feels like it’s going to pull of quite a magic trick, making all the disparate elements come together.
Unfortunately, the film is betrayed not only by its inability to make these sweeps of tonality, it’s equally burdened by overwrought elements more pedantic than unsettling, using the cheapest of tropes to elicit reactions in an audience probably uninterested in sticking with it. Then, when it tries to bely expectation, it always goes for the gratuitous and exploitational, thus leaving room for some of the many scense that devolve into melodrama.
Still, for a good while the film seemed to have its conceit in check. Set in a prison-like boarding school/orphanage in 1958, a young boy named Alex (Luis de La Rosa ) is dropped off by parents, who are ostensibly abandoning their troubled kid for bad behaviour. There we meet the headmaster/warden Julio (Mauricio García Lozano), himself a former student of the institution, who speaks of Hannibal’s dictum Aut inveniam viam aut faciam, or "I shall either find a way or make one”, speaking to shaping the obstinate into a respectable young man.
The film then goes through moments quite affecting, with a young group of kids standing up to their brutalizers as prisoners to guards, bonding together while managing to still sneak notes to the female “inmates” including a lovely and bright eyed Isabel (Miranda Kay). Playing out as a kind of precious prisoner-of-war film, there was some hope we’d continue to build upon the charm.
Then the film toys with dark elements indeed, yet ones far too easy and tritely executed to be truly shocking. Indeed, the real feeling of anxiety feels as the film itself slips away, diminishing any patience one had for it in favour of simply head-shaking shock as it gets bawdier and more mindlessly brutal.
The performances of the children are often quite compelling, and even Lozano’s over-the-top scene chewing begins as more charistmatic than comical. Yet as the film drags on and we move from escape film to something more akin of a Terminator film it truly goes off the rails. It’s all the more unfortunate as for every paint-by-number thriller you kind of want them to have kids in distress, but again the feeling of haphazardness of it all makes for scenes that just leave one shaking their head. A simple device – slapping a child, swinging a large metal object – is repeated over and over again in different contexts that it feels stagnant and gratuitous.
While the Wolf’s Away ends up being an unholy lovechild between The Devil’s Backbone and The Great Escape, with bits of Stand By Me and Full Metal Jacket thrown in for good measure. I know what you’re thinking – “hey, that sounds awesome!” - yet for all its pastichial elements the work seems to neglect to take the working parts of these references and instead fixates on churning out a miserable little melodrama couched as a coming-of-age flick. A failure by the final reel, the film is an interesting miss in watching things go out of hand over its running time, like a slow cascade where all the joy is slowly bled out and you’re left just angry. I can’t claim I know how to fix this troubled film, but I can say that unlike those that are simply silly from the get go, at least this dud worked its way down from initial moments that genuinely held promise.