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TIFF23: Wildcat Loses Flannery O’Connor’s Plot

Courtesy of TIFF

The ever-elusive concept of a biopic seems to haunt directors. It’s the genre that separates the good from the great. What exactly it is that makes biopics so difficult is up for debate, but directors keep trying. In Wildcat, a selection of the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, director Ethan Hawke takes on the monumental task of telling a story about the life and work of Flannery O’Connor. The idea came from his daughter, Maya Hawke, who plays the famed Flannery. She’s been a reader of O’Connor since her teenage years, so in that sense, Wildcat has been decades in the making. The bulk of the movie takes place in the year or so leading up to the last fourteen years of Flannery’s life, when lupus confined her to the first floor of her mother’s (Laura Linney) home in Georgia. Flannery’s final years were spent in the bedroom, writing as much as her illness would allow.

Adapting a person’s life, or telling a true story of any sorts, is a thorny process. How closely must a film follow reality? What creative liberties are allowed when dealing with the life of a real person? Some people, like my mother, want the biopic to be a factual representation of what the person lived through. It should stand up to fact-checking under a microscope. Other people, like my father, just want to see a good story. I net out somewhere in between. I’m fine if some creative liberties, within reason, are taken to streamline a story. For example, if the script takes a few people who were important to the subject’s life and consolidates them into one character, that works for me. 

What doesn’t work for me is when a film changes the reality of the essence of a person. In Wildcat, Flannery is presented as a wildly progressive woman in the 1950s. The audience sees her time and again chastise her mother for racism. It’s true that Flannery’s work painted her as a more progressive woman, but that wasn’t the case, and her own opinions on Black people were hidden from the public until 2014. Defenders of Flannery argue that she’s simply a product of her time and that we shouldn’t hold it against her. This review is not going to turn into a debate about separating the art from the artist, but it’s irresponsible to erase Flannery’s well-documented racism in order to paint her as a modern woman. She can’t be both a modern woman and a product of her times. The truth is far thornier and requires reflection and research before making a decision, but Wildcat took the easy way out. They simply painted over the cracks in Flannery’s character and called it a day.

Flannery stands by the mailbox
Courtesy of TIFF

Wildcat is scattered, and while some of the snippets of Flannery’s short stories and essays make for compelling fare, they don’t paint a cohesive picture of the woman and her work. With all of the cast playing double duty as characters in Flannery’s stories, Linney is able to show off a bit. Many will be intrigued by Wildcat because of its father/daughter duo, but the real runaway star of the show is Linney. Hawke’s Flannery suffers a little from a Southern accent that doesn’t quite sound right, and she doesn’t always remember she has lupus. There’s a dramatic third act monologue from Flannery to a priest (a wild cameo that I will preserve). She’s bedridden and in immense pain whenever she moves, but when the monologue begins all of that is forgotten. If the audience also forgets that she’s supposed to be in great pain and rides with the highs and lows of the speech, it really does make for a great performance moment, but can that excuse the omission?

Wildcat, when it’s not head-scratchingly off-topic, falls into the trappings of a generic biopic. There are heavy-handed metaphors, over-utilized voiceover narration, and stilted dialogue. It’s somehow straightforward and off-kilter at the same time. The film begins with a black-and-white pseudo- trailer for one of Flannery’s short stories. It’s weird and fun, presented like a preview for the larger film the audience will see. Unfortunately, it’s the only sequence where Hawke’s talent as a director is fully on display, where his excitement is palpable, but also controlled. It’s so very obvious that the works of Flannery are important to both Hawkes, but Wildcat feels like an example of being too close to the subject to see the larger picture. 

Written by Tina Kakadelis

News Editor for Film Obsessive. Movie and pop culture writer. Seen a lot of movies, got a lot of opinions. Let's get Carey Mulligan her Oscar.

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