Tue. Oct 27th, 2020

TIFF Review: Despite strong performances from its leads, ‘Wildfire’ is doused by lackluster storytelling

Plot: After having suddenly and mysteriously disappeared for almost a year, a women returns to her hometown in Ireland and tries to blend in despite her mental health issues. 


Sincere, but too downbeat, miserablist and repetitive, Cathy Brady’s WILDFIRE unfortunately frustrates viewers rather than moves them. Attempting to tell a personal story with socio-political parallels to Ireland itself, the film is bogged down by a repulsive tone and a script that ends up in a never-ending loop of situations that rarely succeed in creating a compelling narrative. Mainstream success is unlikely, but the picture may find local success particularly with UK and Irish audiences who may best relate to the political backdrop against which the main events unfold. 

WILDFIRE opens with Kelly (Nika McGuigan) who is clearly undergoing mental health issues. Disoriented, struggling with depression and unable to cope with her surroundings, we learn that she had abruptly disappeared a year ago, leaving her only sister unaware of her fate. We see her at sea, on board a ship back to Ireland to reconnect with her sister Lauren (Noora-Jane Noone). 

Just as Ireland went through political turmoil, particularly the Northern and Southern parts of the country, Kelly and Lauren also share a traumatic part: their mother suddenly departed, leaving them deeply scarred, troubled and unable to cope with the void that her absence has created. Cathy Brady attempts to portray the two sisters as symbols for Ireland itself: a country with a traumatic past and two regions that are at odds (the film alludes to current debates around the return of the border between the UK province in North Ireland and the independent Republic in the south). 

The main problem in WILDFIRE is that it never rises above the melodrama. Instead of a more insightful, nuanced story on how two widely different sisters are trying to come to terms with hard facts, the film becomes a repetitive showcase of Kelly’s mental health issues to the point that it becomes too gloomy to care for, too miserable to follow and too one-note to invest in. It is one thing to showcase the mental health experience and how it impacts a character’s well-being and relationships, but hammering this down with little character development or narrative progression does not serve the themes nor the viewers. As the film progresses, viewers are further alienated by the approach, and the film’s potential accessibility unfortunately diminishes further. 

Performances are strong – McGuigan and Noone are up to the task and deliver believable portrayals of characters whose intentions, attitudes and choices often collide. It is a shame that the film around them isn’t as interesting.

Verdict: With the right approach, WILDFIRE could have been a much more illuminating film that sustains viewers’ attention and paints a picture of how the personal often matches the socio-political. Instead, we’re presented with a film that lacks nuance and may well be a frustrating experience for viewers, particularly mainstream ones. 

Grade: C-

This review is from the 45th Toronto International Film Festival.

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