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‘Wolf’ brings out the animal in some fine young actors

George MacKay, Lily-Rose Depp star in dark fairy tale that handles a real-life condition — believing you’re not human — with sensitivity and empathy

Jacob (George MacKay) Takes time to howl every night in “Wolf.”
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Recently I’ve become acquainted with a prominent and respected doctor who has treated patients with some amazing and unusual real-life disorders, including ...

  • Apotemnophilia: a form of body dysmorphic syndrome in which the patient has the burning desire to amputate a healthy limb.
  • Transient Global Amnesia: a temporary loss of memory.
  • Florence Syndrome: patients are so moved in the presence of great art that they can faint, lose bodily functions or even orgasm.
  • Alice in Wonderland Syndrome: In essence, a persistent acid trip in which one might feel like an actual giant, or microscopically small.

Tell me you wouldn’t watch a streaming series starring, say, Bryan Cranston or Viola Davis, as a physician who treats such patients. Which brings us to the unnerving, bold, and unforgettably bizarre “Wolf,” which is about another type of strange and unsettling but very real condition: Species Dysphoria, in which the patient is convinced they are not human but are in fact a bird, a dog, a bear, a lion — or in the case of George MacKay’s Jacob, a wolf. A wolf that believes it belongs in the wild with the rest of the pack, a wolf that howls in the dead of night, a wolf that scampers about on all fours, a wolf that refuses (or is unable) to acknowledge the reality facing itself every time it looks in the mirror.

MacKay, the British actor best known for his stunningly strong work in “1917,” does a remarkable job in creating a character who moves about with such canine grace it’s as if he’s starring in a motion-capture movie — especially after night has fallen, when the shirtless Jacob is prone to finding a rooftop or a balcony where he can howl with great force and pain, like a caged animal.

When we meet Jacob, he’s had another relapse and his parents have taken him to the True You clinic, where he joins a small group of patients who believe they’re animals such as a squirrel, a horse, a panda, a parrot or a duck. Eileen Walsh plays a seemingly sympathetic therapist who conducts daily sessions and believes in positive reinforcement — but the real head of the institution is Dr. Mann (Paddy Considine), aka The Zookeeper, and the fact he’s known as The Zookeeper tells you a little something about his extreme methods. The Zookeeper maintains a firm but caring façade of firm when it is Visitors’ Day, but as soon as the parents are gone, he forces his patients to confront what he believes to be the absurdity of their conditions. A boy who says he’s a squirrel is told time and again to scamper up a tree; a girl who think she’s a bird is forced to a second-story ledge and told to flap her “wings” and fly because after all, she’s a bird, right?

And we’re just beginning to find out the depths of The Zookeeper’s sadism.

Wildcat (Lily-Rose Depp), who believes she’s a bobcat, forms a connection with Jacob.
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With the effectively claustrophobic production design and swirling cinematography giving “Wolf” a kind of “Cuckoo’s Nest” vibe, we also get a love story, as Jacob makes a deep connection with Lily-Rose Depp’s Wildcat, who believes she’s a bobcat and has apparently lived at the facility for most of her life and has privileges that allow her to roam the grounds freely. A scene in which Jacob and Wildcat circle each other, making animal sounds and sniffing, plays like an exercise in a stage acting class, and yet MacKay and Depp are so committed to their performances and so believable as these deeply troubled and tortured people, we buy into it. We find ourselves hoping against hope — and against the monstrous Zookeeper — that these two will find a way to have a real life together.

Writer-director Nathalie Biancheri treats this potentially sensational material with sensitivity and empathy, though “Wolf” sometimes careens in the direction of a pure horror film and introduces some late elements that border on the grotesque and seem superfluous to the main story. Still, this is an involving and dark fairy tale, with great performances from MacKay and Depp. Jacob and Wildcat might have a very long way to go before they’re truly human — but then again, so does The Zookeeper.