Review: Wildcat Attempts to Reveal Flannery O’Connor Through O’Connor’s Own Words

As filmmakers and creatives look to their own for subject matter, there are ultimately two options to chronicle the lives and inner dialogues of notable authors, musicians, artists and others: the documentary, or the biopic. The former offers an opportunity to approach the subject from an archival, first-hand historical perspective, particularly if they are still alive. What the documentary can't (or shouldn't) do is infuse bias or otherwise color the recounting of the subject's work, writings, output or societal engagement. A biopic, on the other hand, has a bit more leeway in its narrative approach, often using the subject as a jumping off point for delving into broader themes or conclusions available to modern audiences.

In the case of mid-century author Flannery O'Connor, both such works now exist: the 2020 documentary Flannery, and now Ethan Hawke's Wildcat, starring daughter Maya Hawke as a young O'Connor coming into her own as an author in mid-century (and fully steeped in segregation, racism and other such systemic issues) Georgia. The latter is a deeply researched, thoughtful navigation of a complicated, conflicted woman who struggled with her faith (O'Connor was deeply Catholic) and found something fascinating in the darkest corners of our hearts and minds. The former is a subdued and ultimately underdeveloped snapshot of that same woman, her sharp edges all smoothed off as the filmmakers attempt to make her more palatable that she probably ever was.

Hawke's physical adoption of O'Connor's chin-length curls, scholarly glasses and southern drawl is all quite impressive; as nepo-babies go, she's got chops. In Wildcat, she and Laura Linney, playing her often overbearing if well-meaning mother, Regina, are quite the watchable pair, and as the film bounces between real life and O'Connor's literary conjurings, they each play several roles in different scenes. Those familiar with O'Connor's writings will recognize the many short stories and scenes included here, and Hawke (the elder) and co-writer Shelby Gaines infuse each of these with an undercurrent of curious dread O'Connor was fond of. Similar efforts in real-world scenes don't quite land, instead making otherwise tense or awkward moments, like an interaction with a Black mother and her child where Regina is taken aback by her own (racist) assumptions, seem nearly laughable. O'Connor challenges her and, knowing what we know about her own racist views, the whole scene feels like an attempt to rewrite history (whether it really happened this way or not).

And this is the overall flaw with Wildcat, a film that sticks to O'Connor's own writings rather than venture into O'Connor's place on the American literary stage, her position among writerly peers (think of the cameo potential for actors playing Truman Capote, James Baldwin, Harper Lee!). Her prickly, straight-shooting personality often offended; in Wildcat it's played as a joke, a nuisance. She is often described (particularly when discussing her racist remarks) as a product of her time, and that's of course true. But she was who she was, in that era or any, and Wildcat—and her literary legacy—would be better to wholly embrace that rather than shy away from it.

Wildcat is now playing in theaters.

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Lisa Trifone