Wildcat – A writer’s search for grace

I have to admit that Flannery O’Connor is a writer I’ve heard of, but not really delved into. I can identify her as a writer in the Southern Gothic genre, and I know that her writing reflected her Catholicism. So I entered Wildcat, directed and co-written by Ethan Hawke, without much background information. To be frank, if you’re looking for a biopic about a writer, this probably doesn’t quite fit that bill. However, it is an interesting look at the confluence of life (and mortality), faith, suffering, and creativity.

We meet Flannery (Maya Hawke) as she meets with her publisher discussing the novel she is struggling with. She is not as cooperative as the publisher would like. Indeed, she is stubbornly determined to write (and rewrite and rewrite) the book she wants in the way she wants. That willfulness serves as a major character attribute (both as a strength and flaw) in her life.

Soon, however, she is headed home to Georgia and her mother Regina (Laura Linney), where she is diagnosed with lupus, the same disease that took her father when she was a child. Here, away from the intellectual and literary circles she has been in, she continues to struggle not only with the illness, but with writing. She also struggles with what it means to live in faith.

This is not a traditional biography. Rather the film is a blending of Flannery’s story (which include frequent flashbacks to her time in Iowa Writers Workshop and then New York) and her stories. When we see the fiction she is writing, the main characters are portrayed by Maya Hawke and Laura Linney. This gives us a sense that the stories, while not set in Flannery’s life, reflect the world in which she lives. The stories are not just creations, but expressions of her experience of the world. It also sometimes takes us a little while to perceive if we are seeing Flannery or her writing (or if it matters).

Another key ingredient in this blending is her faith and spirituality. Often we hear in voiceover her prayers or her struggle to better understand. In one scene, with a group of intellectuals who discount the meaning of the Eucharist, she speaks of the cost of faith. She says of faith that people want it to be a big electric blanket, when in reality it is the cross. Later, when a priest (a nice cameo by Liam Neeson) comes to visit, she overwhelms him with the depth of her ponderings.

Some of the stories also reflect issues of spiritual life, especially about hypocrisy and racism. (It should be noted that O’Connor’s racial attitudes are the subject of serious studies. One biographer described her as writing for recovering racists.) Many of the stories point to the white privilege that she recognized in her society. They might often include more fundamentalist Protestants that she seems to find rather ridiculous.

Through it all the underlying theme is a search for grace. Flannery understands her writing to be tied into that search. It is a sharing in creation. It is a crying out in times of pain and suffering. It is wonder at the beauty of creation. It is finding hope. It is finding meaning in life and in suffering. But this is not the nice electric blanket. In her stories (and her life), we often see those who are very much in need of grace and may not even know it.

Wildcat is in select theaters.

Photos courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.

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