There’s a fine line between being a loving and devoted son and being a doormat for your family. In “The Wild Man,” writer, director and star Riley Cusick walks that line but manages to stay off the floor — most of the time.
Cusick, an Austin native, stars as Scott, a put-upon guy whose mom left home after his dad had a breakdown and started wearing a bear suit and a ram’s head all the time. The dad believes he’s a wild and dangerous bear, and Scott tries to play along as well as he can.
Scott is 25 and didn’t even graduate high school because he had to take care of the Wild Man, (Chance Gibbs), who stays in his costume all the time. To stay afloat, Scott works two jobs — at a nursery and at a horse farm. The Wild Man, of course, doesn’t work, but he requires daily walking and is prone to violent outbursts.
Scott’s only other relative is Uncle Walter (Larry Fessenden), an alcoholic moocher who ends up flat on the floor a lot. So he’s not a lot of help.
You might think that Cusick is playing some of this for laughs. And there are a few. But he takes his father’s plight quite seriously and shows a lot of patience and care.
In comments before the movie’s world premiere at the Austin Film Festival on Sunday, Cusick tried to explain his intentions: “One of the things I felt strongly about in the making of ‘The Wild Man’ is that I wanted this film to embrace the sincerity of the situation. We’re not playing for laughs or shock value, even though the titular character wears a modified Bigfoot costume for the entire runtime. There’s something that was so freeing and vulnerable about embracing sort of an occult idea with open hearts. And there’s something about that strangeness that makes it feel like a fairytale, speaking to something more universal. The sort of story that could remind us of our own relationships to our loved ones, to the world around us, and to ourselves. And at its core we wanted to capture the instability of our minds against an unconditional love. Most of all, I just hope my dad likes the film.”
In case you’re wondering about the reference to Cusick’s dad, when the Wild Man finally has his costume taken away from him, he is played by Cusick’s real-life dad, Jeff. The guy in the suit is Gibbs.
All of the movie’s events unfurl in the week before Scott reluctantly puts his dad in a nursing home. And it’s quite a week. The Wild Man flees from his home and ends up at a neighbor’s place, and the neighbor is not amused to find a guy in a bear suit in her home.
Jenna Kanell plays the young neighbor, Jackie, and she wears an ankle bracelet since she’s on parole for an unspecified crime.
Scott apologizes profusely for the intrusion, and a spark emerges between the two, with Scott getting the idea that a romance might be possible.
Cusick plays Scott with an unexpected charm, and it’s hard not to root for him. And you also sort of root for the Wild Man.
It’s a touching story about navigating young adulthood when all of the other adults never did seem to learn how to navigate it well.
The film is Cusick’s second feature, after 2021’s “Autumn Road,” which starred Cusick and Lorelei Linklater, the daughter of Austin filmmaker Richard Linklater.
“The Wild Man” plays again at the Austin Film Festival, at 7 p.m. Nov. 2, at the Galaxy Highland.