Contrary to her movie’s title, the protagonist in “Feral” hardly fits any indigent stereotype: She’s young, attractive, kempt, modishly dressed, in fact by all appearances rather closer to the cliché of the college-educated, gentrifying if still “quirky” Brooklyn hipster. No one would guess that Annapurna Sriram’s Yasmine is homeless, a deceiving appearance that’s one of the few things she has left to turn to her advantage.
This first narrative feature by cinematographer and documentarian Andrew Wonder is an intriguingly offbeat character sketch that falls somewhere short of a fully-rounded portrait. Nonetheless, his arresting subject matter and refined aesthetic make for a promising debut worthy of discerning viewers’ attention. After a year’s festival-circuit travel, it’s getting a VOD release on June 2.
It takes a while to realize we’re not watching more than one lead figure here, as her arsenal of thrift-shop finery, makeup, hair styles and possible wigs can render Yasmine unrecognizable from one scene to another. One “look” she doesn’t encompass, however, is down-and-out, with only occasional extreme bad luck revealing she doesn’t have reliable access to bathing facilities. As the camera follows her down into tunnels beneath Manhattan’s West Side, we might initially assume she’s just an intrepid urban explorer, daring to poke around the subterranean world where documentary “Dark Days” revealed hidden homeless communities two decades ago. But this is where Yasmine actually lives: She’s staked out a small personal niche in what appears to be an abandoned power station just off a subway line.
If there’s any community still down there, however, she shuns it, keeping her distance from more conspicuous dispossessed people while warily interacting with “respectable” citizenry above ground. Early on, she lets a friendly musician (Kevin Hoffman) take her home, only to flee with some of his cash and belongings when he thinks he’s about to get lucky. Later she shares a smoke in a park with a frazzled young hipster mother (Sarah Wharton) who feels she’s no longer in control of her life.
Yasmine tells this stranger that every morning she gives herself the pep talk “I do what I want cuz I’m the boss of my whole body” — even though that isn’t strictly true. In fact, she’s vulnerable to the violent abuse of drunken bros on the street, not to mention unforgiving winter cold in the air. When a kindly older Latina woman (Aurora Flores) takes her in one freezing night, even that generosity proves invasive in its way, as Yasmine is soon turned over to a church shelter whose charity comes with its own price tag.
It’s in that setting that she’s interviewed by a film crew for unknown purposes, making her another of the (presumably real-life) former homeless heard discussing their experiences throughout “Feral.” Wonder mixes fictive and documentary elements to good effect, including amateur and professional performers. Acting as his own DP, he achieves a tactile richness that bridges poetical lyricism with vérité-style content, utilizing diverse soundtrack choices (including numerous tracks by the late New York poet/musician Moondog) and visual strategies to create a complexly textured whole that’s deftly woven together by editor Jason Sager.
But as impressive as “Feral” often is in filmmaking terms, it’s less satisfying on the narrative plane. The script (by Wonder with Priscilla Kavanaugh and Jason Mendez) is episodic and fragmentary. That makes sense for the heroine’s situation, but doesn’t necessarily make sense of her situation. We eventually learn Yasmine’s mother was deported some years ago. However, why this bright and resourceful young woman would still be living on (or below) the streets is a big question the film doesn’t really address. She’s a character who’s striking as a special case, but at the same time that exceptionalism isn’t fully credible.
At its least, “Feral’s” air of gritty realism risks being undermined by a protagonist who’s too much a sketchy imaginative construct, despite Sriram’s committed performance. But the larger truths the film conveys in distinctive artistic terms ultimately win out, and that’s what stays with you.