All of the promotional blurbs spoil half of Ya'Ke Smith's powerfully made story about abuse and corruption in the church. Without that knowledge, Wolf appears to be a mature look at the emotional turmoil of a homosexual African American teenager dealing with the grief of having been dumped.
His family's strong ties to a local church where the reverend is a zealous preacher of God's indiscriminate love could simply be context for his social environment away from his peers. At school, Carl's (Jordan Cooper) classmates taunt him, and Smith uses the setting to explicitly state the film's predatory animal metaphor through a lecture on the hunting habits of wolves.
Despondent and disinterested in his scholastic achievements since receiving a break-up text from his lover, Carl leaves a distraught video confessional and doubles down on a suicide attempt, slashing his arm in a room full of carbon monoxide. It's around here that Wolf takes a turn towards the sensationalistic.
Carl's father calls on the family's trusted reverend to pray for the boy's recovery. And pray he does, with such passion that it's clear his affection runs deeper than that of a shepherd for one of his flock. Fatalistic dramatic convenience rears its realism-defying head, with Carl snapping awake at the height of the holy man's sermon.
While it's filled with strong performances and opposing perspectives on the church – Carl's grandmother wants the situation dealt with quietly so as not to damage the community and his mother wants the equivalent of a public tar and feathering – and sexuality – Carl's mother is far more accepting of his inclinations than his father, to say the least – Wolf gradually makes its position clear with increasingly sensationalised reactions that paint any and all "unholy" proclivities as a result of abuse, with the blame falling squarely on absentee fathers.
The descent into preachy melodrama undermines the careful character work earlier in the film, focusing on the fire and brimstone of cyclical abuse at the expense of a deeper understanding of emotional connections that fall outside of generally perceived normalcy.
Wolf screens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Thursday, November 15th at 6:15pm. (Exodus)