The hero of “The True Adventures of Wolfboy,” a new movie appearing on demand, suffers from hypertrichosis, a medical condition in which hair grows all over the body and face. The movie itself suffers from hyperbole, hyper-self-consciousness, at times hyperventilation. A magical-realist coming-of-age fairy tale set in Buffalo and environs, it toggles between whimsy and grim realism.
But there’s talent here in an original script by Olivia Dufault, colorful direction by Martin Krejcí, and the acting of Jaeden Martell, the plaintive child star of “Midnight Special,” “The Book of Henry,” and “It,” who here gives a credible performance from behind a thick layer of fur.
His character, Paul, spends most of the movie on the run, having fled from an overprotective dad (Chris Messina) in search of the mother who abandoned him long ago to the stares of strangers and taunts of bullies. On the edge of turning 13, Paul is ready to strike out on his own, and the movie is the story of how the boy finds his first real friends among the misfit youths of Buffalo.
But first he gets employed in the freak show of a carnival run by Mr. Silk, who is played by John Turturro with a ponytail of silver hair and the kind of grandiloquent overacting that delivers its own kind of pleasure. A scene in which Mr. Silk strolls imperiously into a dive bar and says, “Tequila and cinnamon — and light it on fire” may be the most fun you’ll have all week.
Less digestible are the antics of Paul’s new crew, who include a trans teen named Aristiana, played by the trans actress Sophie Giannamore, with her own mother issues, and an eye-patched troublemaker named Rose, who is played by Eve Hewson, Bono’s daughter, and who likes to stick up convenience stores for the fun of it. Here’s where the tonal balancing act of “The True Adventures of Wolfboy” turns gluey and off-putting, since our sympathies tend to lie with the terrified store clerks (usually working-class people of color) rather than the high-spirited teen rebels robbing them. “Spring Breakers” this ain’t.
The plotting gets further tangled as the hirsute hero and Aristiana make a trek by bus and foot to Pennsylvania for reasons that never do become clear and a vengeful Mr. Silk stalks their trail in ways that elude logic. Director Krejcí, a Czech-born filmmaker with experience in TV commercials, brings high style to some scenes while rooting others in a squalid urban landscape, and the film’s colorful sideshow-poster “chapter headings” — “Wolfboy Deals with the Devil,” “Wolfboy and the Pirate Queen” — promise a lift-off into tough-minded fancy that is only partly realized onscreen.
If you’ve seen Martell in his earlier films (or as the creepy alt-right son in “Knives Out”), you know he’s an actor able to convey much with a minimum of gestures. A role that renders the actor’s expressive features nearly invisible behind a thick coat of hair does him no favors, and since Paul’s role is largely reactive to the characters around him, there’s a hole at the center of “The True Adventures of Wolfboy” that’s never satisfactorily filled, even when the mystery of his condition is explained via a couple of interesting guest appearances toward the end. The result is a movie that plays like a noble but misfired adaptation of the young adult novel it never was.
THE TRUE ADVENTURES OF WOLFBOY
Directed by Martin Krejcí. Written by Olivia Dufault. Starring Jaeden Martell, Sophie Giannamore, Chris Messina, Eve Hewson, Chloë Sevigny. Available on VOD. 88 minutes. PG-13 (mature thematic content, drinking, some strong language, sexual references and violence — all involving teens)