One of the most unique and unexpected films at the inaugural North Bend Film Fest was the Swiss film from Katharina Wyss, Sarah Plays a Werewolf. I should probably note up front – there are no werewolves in this film. Nor is it a traditional horror piece. Nothing supernatural or otherworldly. Instead, it is a film about the trials, horror and heartbreak of simply trying to navigate life as a teenage girl.
Sarah (Loan Balthazar) is seventeen. She is lonely and isolated, looking for a way to express herself and to connect with the world around her. If only she could find someone who will listen. Her only real outlet is a drama group she participates in after school. There, she seems to master many of the thoughts and feelings that engulf her on a daily basis, and turn them into something artistic. Something beautiful and powerful.
Through it all, Sarah is hiding a secret. She has no idea how to deal with it, so her only options seem to be to act out in one way or another. She loses herself in plays and music, she creates and obsesses over tragic stories, she tells pathological lies about her love life and her family, and she inappropriately spreads rumors about other students. To say that Sarah isn’t terribly well-adjusted would be an understatement.
The only way successful way she knows to process everything going on inside of her is on the stage, though the characters that she creates. And even then, it seems she doesn’t fully understand where her ideas and passion come from. But she throws herself into the exercises wholeheartedly and for a few minutes every day, finds reprieve from everything in her life that she doesn’t understand.
Wyss’ first film is a complex and challenging piece about growing up and failing to fit in. Without a trusted confidant or a healthy outlet, Sarah is adrift. She has no close friends, her family doesn’t understand her and everything she tries to do to bring her closer to other people only really serves to set her farther apart. Watching it is at once a fulfilling and frustrating experience, as our heroine can’t even open up to herself (and thus, the audience). It takes us time to really piece together what is going on in Sarah’s life, since we can’t always immediately separate fact from fiction. Sarah is an enigma to us as much as she is to the people in her own life. Slowly but surely, we begin to break that puzzle apart and to understand the real feelings and nature of the person beneath it.
Sarah Plays a Werewolf is a bold, provocative film that is guaranteed to challenge its viewers and push them into some very uncomfortable spaces. It’s art that doesn’t demand to be enjoyed, but instead, asks the audience to follow its lead character through some very difficult life experiences. An untraditional coming of age film, it certainly won’t be for everyone, but it carries a beautify and a truth that is all its own.