Wherever Jack London is he is smiling down on Druid Peak, a coming-of-age story about wolves and the rehab center they run called Yellowstone.
Marni Zelnick’s debut feature doesn’t begin with the wolves, but with bad boy high schooler Owen (Unbreakable’s Spencer Treat Clark), who’s such a rotten apple that he even intimidates his merry band of droogs, one of whom is his chemistry teacher’s grandson. When one of Owen’s bullying sessions goes a little too far, he finds himself covered in blood in a ditch, which is the universe sounding a very big alarm in his ear, to which Owen puts on earmuffs.
His mother, though, is scared for his safety and future, so she ships him off to his father, who’s a park ranger in Yellowstone, where he monitors the wolf population. Owen’s first day in Wyoming doesn’t go so great: he steals a pistol, some ammo and treks off into the great blue yonder. You’ve heard of Rebel Without a Cause, well here’s rebel without a compass. His dad (Andrew Wilson) is mostly unfazed by all this, if only because he’s so much like Owen — he’s living off the reservation because he’s kind of sick of people too.
It’s only through Owen’s involvement with the park’s wolves — maybe because he’s a lone wolf himself — that this reformed nihilist slowly starts believing in something, anything, that isn’t destruction. I’ve seen many movies like this before: the reformed bad boy finds a hobby and eventually makes good. This one is altogether competent, if not completely predictable. It’s also gorgeous, with filming taking place in aspen-filled forests, beautiful valleys with winding rivers and grassy meadows lined with wildlflowers. It’s like a Bierstadt painting come to life.
Druid Peak spends a lot of time establishing the procedures and minutiae of observing wolves, which added an interesting level of detail to the science of the park. For instance, Owen begins tracking several key wolves with their radio collars. A lesser film would have given them all GPS locators and called it a day, but Owen has to lug around this big radio antenna and listen for beeps amid the static. And even when he hears something, all that’s telling him is that one of the wolves is within three miles. I appreciated that the film didn’t dumb it down for the audience. Later on the radio collars plays a bigger role as the wolves slowly encroach on nearby ranches and their scrumptious cattle. The science of the wolves and their existence fits within the world of the film’s story. And the wolves look incredible.
I have a low tolerance for teenaged bad boys, and Owen wore me thin at the beginning — I blame last year’s Hellion for that — but he matured fast enough with the plot that his misanthrope phase doesn’t last too long. Clark, a 26-year-old playing a 16-year-old, has these mysterious eyes that can be expressive and bright in the wolf scenes, and then hollow and emotionless in the opening bits. He’s an interesting choice, but a sound one that nudges the movie forward.
Andrew Wilson, sibling to actors Luke and Owen, might be my new favorite Wilson brother. He’s had bit parts in several Wes Anderson movies, but here he’s allowed to linger on the screen long enough to actually get a good glimpse of him. He’s on the screen to mostly play off Clark, but he has one scene that really stood out for me: he’s flipping through materials on his desk and he notices Owen has stolen some money from a box. The film avoids that verbal showdown you feel coming, and instead allows the father a beat or two of disappointment before moving on. It’s a subtle scene, and one of the Druid Peak’s major victories.
Of course, there is all kinds of wolf drama near the end, and talk about a wolf-hunting season, which promises to show us all the scenes you’d imagine in a movie about a boy who owes everything to his furry new friends. I saw it coming, but that’s not to suggest it doesn’t play out well — it does.
Druid Peak adds some minor, but altogether interesting, twists to the coming-of-age story. I was pleasantly surprised. And I think you will be too.