Indie comics legend Daniel Clowes (“Ghost World,” “Art School Confidential”) brings his cult graphic novel “Wilson” to the big screen, directed by Craig Johnson. Clowes wrote the screenplay and has found the perfect match in Johnson, who tackled similar themes in his previous film “The Skeleton Twins” (which landed in the #1 spot on my Top Ten Best Movies of 2014 list).
Woody Harrelson stars as the lonely and neurotic Wilson, a middle-aged man-child and antihero of the story. Wilson is a grumpy weirdo who struggles to understand society’s current obsession with technology and mourns the lost art of conversation. He truly has a desire to connect to people the old fashioned way, but he often approaches strangers in the most off putting manner possible (like taking a seat right next them on a train or in a cafe when there are plenty of empty ones nearby, with no boundaries nor respect paid to anyone’s personal space). Wilson makes folks rather uncomfortable, but his social awkwardness simply masks his longing for any type of human interaction. He’s a lonely man with only his loyal and elderly dog, Pepper, as a constant companion.
When a chance encounter leads him to track down his ex-wife and former junkie prostitute Pippi (Laura Dern), Wilson learns that the baby he thought she aborted after she left him was actually born and put up for adoption 17 years ago. The two team up and go on a weird undercover mission to find their daughter Claire (Isabella Amara). Once they find her, the movie really starts diving into a strange familial tale of utter dysfunction. As with most families, there’s plenty of melodrama to be found, but Wilson is at once confused and elated by the fact that he’s just discovered that he’s somebody’s daddy.
Harrelson gives a seriously award worthy performance here and manages to do the near impossible: make a struggling, emotionally unstable and immature adult relatable and likeable. Wilson isn’t a nice guy but he’s not a bad guy either; he’s gruff and grumpy but at his heart lies an optimist who truly has a desire to connect with all people. He’s a lost and lonely soul who suddenly finds purpose and meaning to his life. Wilson cares, so you’ll care about him too.
The film has a certain eccentricity to it that’s never off-putting because it’s grounded in its authenticity (I give much credit to Johnson for this, as he really is the perfect match with his straightforward and heartfelt directing style). In addition to the phenomenal Dern and Amara, there’s also a multitude of strong supporting performances from Cheryl Hines as Pippi’s competitive and constantly criticizing sister Polly, Margo Martindale as a talkative stranger, and Judy Greer as a kindly dog sitter who sees the good in Wilson’s heart.
There’s a certain brand of strange to this story and film, but it’s well done and oddly touching. This isn’t a movie that will appeal to everyone but if you’re open-minded when it comes to indie cinema, it’s well worth checking out.