Wild Tigers I Have Known (NC) | Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Cam Archer, US, 2006, 98 mins

Cast: Malcolm Stumpf, Patrick White, Fairuza Balk

Review by Will Davis

Cam Archer’s dreamy, elegiac film is an expressionistic depiction Junior High as seen through the eyes of Logan (Stumpf), a girlish outsider with a crush on an older boy Rodeo (White). Logan’s best friend and his life-weary and embittered mother (Balk) struggle to understand him. Meanwhile, the recent shooting of a mountain lion on the school campus has sparked fears in parents and teachers about the dangers of living so close to the wild.

Wild Tigers I Have Known is filmed in series of colourful, beautifully framed sequences. This style of camerawork is perfectly suited to the dreamy narrative, which gently fazes in and out of the ongoing story of Logan’s difficult youth. The shadowy background image of the mountain lion meanwhile - a metaphorical outsider, menacing yet beautiful in its own way and shot because of its putative danger to society - provides a nice parallel to Logan’s languid journey through high school.

The film comes over much like a series of hazy half-recollected memories, interspersed with surreal representations of overwhelming feelings and desires, and as such it works extraordinarily well, producing an evocative and mesmerizing, almost soporific effect on the viewer. The bursts of humour, such as the school’s seminar on how to act if you come across a mountain lion, or Logan’s response to the school councillor when she asks why he won’t be hit (‘Because I won’t look at him again’), are bravely kept to a minimum. It would have been easy for Archer to make this film far more comical and punchy, but he is not interested in compromising his vision for the sake of easy laughs. The characters are not given improbably witty one-liners or amazing insights – the point is that they are confused and disillusioned, unable to articulate their emotions and difficulties with the world around them. Archer’s style recalls other somnambulant, contemplative films focusing on disaffected youth, such Greg Araki’s Beautiful Skin, but most of all one is reminded of Gus Van Sant films such as Elephant and My Own Private Idaho – doubtless a major influence on Archer (especially what him being the producer of Wild Tigers I Have Known).

The naturalistic dialogue is stilted in places – presumably deliberately. Though an outsider, Logan’s character is by no means inaccessible. In fact the opposite is true, and in his snatches of dialogue he comes over as very normal. Since we are not given a clichéd succession of bullying scenes, the viewer is left to draw their own conclusion about his alienation, the extent to which it is down to his character, the kids around him, and his burgeoning sexuality. Likewise, Rodeo is not just some handsome yet sensitive jock, but a dead-beat himself, with little other than his age and looks to set him apart from Logan.

Wild Tigers I Have Known is a lyrical, thoughtful, carefully composed and sumptuous-to-look-at film. The perfect evocation of those lazy teenage summer days, when the world was half wonderful and half monstrous. Very much recommended indeed.