By Linc Leifeste | February 13, 2014
Writer: Ya’Ke Smith
Starring: Jordan Cooper, Shelton Jolivette, Mikala Gibson, Irma P. Hall, Eugene Lee, Gabi Walker, Monique Straw, Amelia Jeffries, Nikki Young, Xavier Ramirez
What happens when, as a parent, the very institution that you most trust to protect, nurture and guide your children, instead preys on them? What happens when the person you most respect, admire and venerate preys on and destroys the person you most love? Ya’ke Smith’s Wolf unflinchingly and realistically delves into these troubled waters in telling the tale of one family’s near dismantling at the hands of an unexpected predator.
Carl (Jordan Cooper) is a typical teenager, a bit shy and introverted, living what seems to be an ordinary middle-class life. But he is having a recurring nightmare of being alone in a forest, wearing red (shot beautifully to invoke thoughts of Little Red Riding Hood and other dark folk tales), with a creature pursuing him just on the edges of his perception, occasionally issuing a wolf-like growl. We soon discover that he is depressed over a romantic relationship that has recently been ended by the other party against Carl’s will and his emotional state is quickly deteriorating. He’s spending his evenings alone in his room, burning himself with a lighter and coming closer and closer, despite his normally passive nature, to violently attacking a bully at his school during the day.
His parents — Nona (Mikala Gibson) and Jaymund (Shelton Jolivette) — despite having a loving relationship with Carl, are out of touch with things in his life. Nona is attentive and involved while Jaymund is emotionally and physically more distant, making a living long-haul trucking and away from the house and family more than he’s home. And when he’s home, he’s not prone to investing a lot of time or emotional energy in Carl, the impression being that Carl’s less stereotypically masculine nature might not have lived up to his father’s hopes for a son.
It is only after Carl attempts suicide that Nona and Jaymond make the shocking discovery that Carl has had an ongoing, inappropriate relationship with Bishop Anderson (Eugene Lee), the pastor of the charismatic, Christian megachurch that the family attends. With Carl’s father having been gone so much over the years, the Bishop had come to be something of a father figure to the boy as well as having counseled Nona and Jaymond through a rocky patch in their marriage. He has been their spiritual leader, their hero and now he has done the once unimaginable (in the days before the many scandals of the Catholic church and Protestant pastors such as Bishop Eddie Long.)
Nona and Carl confront the Bishop, Carl physically attacking him, and are eager to see him punished for his dark deeds but are counseled by an unlikely source, Carl’s grandmother (Irma P. Hall), to not make this a public matter. Instead she shockingly insists that they let the church handle it internally so as to not damage the church, and all it has accomplished, in the process. In the meantime, a recovering Carl is doing everything in his power to protect the Bishop, whom he still feels he loves.
In his feature-length directorial debut, Ya’ke Smith shows he knows a thing or two about character development and has the all-too-rare rare ability to avoid simplistic black and white storytelling. All the characters are fully fleshed out, completely believable and sympathetic figures to varying degrees. Even the Bishop, whose behavior is never excused, is not portrayed simply as the beast the film’s title might suggest but also as a victim himself, one who has kept the cycle of abuse going.
And that idea, of children paying for the sins of their fathers, of the abused becoming the abuser, are powerfully meditated upon in the film. And while I have no doubt that this story, in the hands of many directors, would be used as a knife to twist in the side of the Church, I give Smith praise for never being dismissive of Christian faith itself, even while taking a long critical look at the intersection of power, influence, faith and corruption in our social structures. A film that deserves to be widely seen, despite dealing with topics that are not pleasurable to delve upon, Wolf is sure to elicit strong feelings and deep thoughts among those lucky enough to take it in.