Made with a pleasing balance of verve and intensity, but oh-so-depressing and dramatically somewhat inert, “Wolfy” coolly observes an unhealthy relationship between a mother and her daughter in contempo Russia. Winner of the top prize and several more at this year’s Sochi fest, the film reps an impressive debut not just for writer-helmer Vasily Sigarev (a rising star in the legit world), but also for lupine lead thesp Yana Troyanova as the psychologically abusive mother. Handled right, the pic could wolf down coin domestically in arthouses, while programmers offshore will find this fest-friendly fare.
The story kicks off with a defining dose of brutalism as a pregnant woman (Troyanova, whose character is never named) is arrested by cops on a snowy field for knifing someone, and goes into premature labor. Voiceover narration by a young girl, the result of the birth, explains she wouldn’t meet her mother until seven years later, presumably (it’s never spelled out) after the mother does hard time.
Living with her grandmother, the quiet urchin (Polina Pluchek, looking like Christina Ricci circa “The Addams Family”) is summoned, via a Tarkovsky-like tracking shot of the earth, to come meet her errant parent. The girl’s mom shows less interest in seeing her child than in getting drunk and shagging her latest b.f., whom the girl whacks on the head with a vase when he attacks her mother in a drunken row. Soon after, mom leaves, only to return with a succession of men, strikingly illustrated as a jump-cut montage.
The shape of the narrative is less an arc than a gently waving line, as the mother continually goes off and comes back, while the girl pines for a relationship with her. At one point, the girl starts hanging out at a cemetery where she “befriends” a dead boy, a storyline that doesn’t go anywhere. Occasionally, the mother shows tiny glimmers of affection, as when she gives the girl a spinning top (called a “volchok,” hence the pic’s original title, although the word also means “little wolf,” which would fit both the parent and her wild, semi-feral offspring.)
Unfortunately, the rest of the time, mom either ignores the kid or viciously insults her, leading to a tense, almost unbearably painful climactic confrontation that ends in a silly, if tragic, deus ex machina ending. Despite Sigarev’s expressionistic touches, the depiction of working-class life in Russia’s sticks (locations used are in Yekaterinburg) is pretty accurate. The cumulative effect is to evoke despair for the country’s emerging generation, which makes this of a piece with the helmer’s legit works, such as “Plasticine” and “Black Rain.”
Tremendous thesping by Troyanova is the pic’s saving grace. Sexy, charismatic and utterly monstrous all at once, she lights up the screen. The other thesps, especially Pluchek, mostly underact, all the better to set off Troyanova’s fireworks.
Tech credits are better than average for a Russian film, with umbral lensing and lighting by Alexei Arsentiev and realistically grotty production design by Liudmila Diupina repping standout elements.