Running Time: 88 minutes
Written and Directed by Jessica Kozak
Actors: Kayla Foster, Sunita Mani, Kate Easton, Becca Q. Co, Danny Deferrari, Alyssa Abiera
By Brian Skutle
I don’t know if it’s just the films I’ve decided to focus on in my watching at the 2023 Atlanta Film Festival, but I don’t remember, in my now-five years of covering the festival, quite as many genre films being programmed at the festival as there have been this year. What makes it so striking is how well the films tie into the festival’s tradition of films focusing on interpersonal relationships, understanding and empathy. I don’t think another narrative film I’ve seen at the festival this year does that better, or bolder, than Jessica Kozak’s “Wilder Than Her” (2023), a movie about friendship that takes some big swings in showing how friendships get fractured after loss.
Before the story begins proper- and before the title credits roll- we meet the main characters. Emilia (Sunita Mani) is a school counselor whom is struggling to find a way to help a girl who’s kicking Emilia’s desk more than talking. Finn (Kate Easton) is a bartender with attitude. And Lucey (Kayla Foster) is a ballet instructor who has a hard time keeping her class in order. They’ve been distant since a fourth friend, Bea (Becca Q. Co), died unexpectedly, in what seems like a suicide. The quartet had been friends for years, and had an annual camping trip they went on. Emilia wants to continue that for Bea, and reluctantly, Finn and Lucey agree. But there’s something not quite right from the start, and when a lone hiker (Zeke, played by Danny Deferrari) comes across the women, the tensions are inflamed.
When one member of a group is suddenly gone from that group, it makes sense that the dynamic for the remaining ones changes. This is most evident when someone dies, but it’s universal in any situation, whether it’s family members passing on, friendships drifting apart, or coworkers who leave for another job. “Wilder Than Her” shows a pretty extreme version of that, using thriller tropes to get to the heart of these characters, but there’s honesty in the underlying idea it’s portraying. You can just tell that a group isn’t jelling the way it used to when a significant event happens. Bea’s death throws this quartet off, and Emilia- the most outwardly empathetic of the four- feels it. But as we see her interact with Finn and Lucey as they’re isolated, what we think we understand about the dynamics of the friendships is tested and twisted, whether it’s the matter of how close they were to Bea, how Zeke effects the women sexually, and the ways a night of tripping on drugs brings out some deep-seeded distrust in the group. Eventually, it’s hard for them- and us- to trust what we think we know about these characters, and the ending only adds more layers to that.
“Wilder Than Her” marks Kozak’s debut as a feature director, and she knows how to twist the knife for the audience, keeping us on our toes about what we’re seeing, and letting the characters reveal themselves naturally. Mani’s performance is the one that, I think, will linger long in the memory from this film. Everything that happens in the film builds to whom Emilia is at the end, and how Kozak transforms our understanding of the character is a striking bit of character building- it’s one of those performances that makes you excited by the potential of what you’ll see next from an actor. Easton and Foster do not hold our attention quite as much- their roles are reactive to Emilia, but they deliver in the moments that matter most for their characters as the film builds to its climax.
I think one of the things that made “Wilder Than Her” stand out among the offerings of the festival when it comes to the thrillers I’ve seen is how it feels less like a plot that is going through the motions of the genre, and more like a story. Along the way, we see people in pain, people uncomfortable with who they are, people uncomfortable with each other, and people changed by what they go through. How it adheres to formula is not important; how it explores its characters are ideas does. This does that as well as any movie I might see this year.
Read more about the 2023 Atlanta Film Festival at www.sonic-cinema.com.