On the heels of a sold-out debut at Austin’s South By Southwest Film Festival last month, Ya’Ke Smith’s debut feature, “WOLF,” screens at the Dallas International Film Festival this weekend. The taut, emotional drama is about a family struggling to come to grips with their son’s sexual abuse at the hands of their church pastor.
Newcomer Jordan Cooper plays Carl, the boy who looks to Bishop Anderson (masterfully performed by Eugene Lee) as a father figure. At the film’s premiere, Cooper said he felt like his role gave voice to the many victims of abuse who never get to speak up.
“I feel like all those people were in that character and on my shoulders,” he noted later. “It was an honor to be able to play that role.”
All of the players in “WOLF” are required to go to terrific emotional depths, and indeed the film’s biggest strength is in its performances. As Carl’s father, Jaymon, Shelton Jolivette said that with kids of his own at home, his part was tough. “I became Jaymon,” he said, “and the difficult scene when I had to tell my son [in the film] that I’m about to go, was awkward. I didn’t see ‘Carl,’ I saw my son. It tore me up.” Still, acting is therapeutic for the Houston-based actor and minister. “It’s my release. You go back into that dark place and find that pain, find your past hurt, find a past disappointment or failure, and go get it, and learn how to get rid of it. I was very honored to let [my character], Jaymon, do it for me.”
For her role as Carl’s mother, Nona, Mikala Gibson spent hours reading through the comments in online support groups for parents of victimized children. One common thread, she noticed, was the need for mothers to be strong. “I tried to portray that strength, and keep the family together.” Remembering her own parents, Gibson noted that her mother was the more stoic one of the two. “I never remembered seeing her cry,” she said.
“WOLF” hinges on the confusion that Carl feels after his parents discover his relationship with Bishop Anderson. Cooper said that to understand Carl’s reasons for first hiding the abuse from his parents, then trying to protect Anderson even after the abuse is revealed, he felt that “[Carl] saw this man as his father… [For Carl], he never meant for it to be a sexual relationship. That was his way of thanking him for being his father.”
That’s pretty heavy stuff from a young man who’s never been on film before.
Ya’Ke Smith, the film’s director, says he always had the seed of ‘WOLF’ in his head, ever since he was a teenager when friends would confide in him their problems, including abuse. But seeing the 2006 documentary “Deliver Us From Evil,” about pedophile priest Oliver O’Grady, helped him make up his mind that now was the time to explore such sensitive material in the form of a feature film. “I’d never seen a pedophile given some sense of humanity,” said Smith. “He’s always just seen as a villain, as a demon.”
In flashback scenes, we learn that Bishop Anderson was abused himself as a child.
“[Bishop Anderson] doesn’t want to be that. He’s fighting it with everything that he has, but it’s something that was given to him at such a young age that he doesn’t know how to process it.” Smith filmed scenes for “WOLF” inside his own church in San Antonio, and says the pastors and staff welcomed the project despite its sensitive subject matter, recognizing the film has a potential to help people. “They’re not blind to what’s going on [in churches]. And I think it’s very dangerous when we, as church people, go blind. Because that’s how these things continue to happen.”