Many coming-of-age stories tend to get “what it means to be a teenager” wrong. Too often they revolve around love, a date to the prom, and finally getting the crush the lead has always dreamt of. Once that’s achieved, the film ties everything up with a little bow, as if that was all they needed. That’s partially why so many loved Eighth Grade. Burnham’s film was a break from the norm that seemed to have an intimate understanding of the teenage experience — dismantling the typical expectations and focusing on the emotional development often ignored, and yet so fundamentally important to these coming of age stories. It’s exactly why Eighth Grade and Wyrm would make for the perfect double bill.
Wyrm introduces us to a 90s-esque alternative world where teens wear collars, which are eventually ‘popped’ upon their first kiss. Imagine if high school suddenly cared too much about sex ed — and Wyrm (Theo Taplitz) is the last to pop his collar, with a deadline quickly looming. Already, you might be able to see some of the teenage anxieties Winterbauer is satirising — there’s a humorous dystopian feeling to the bureaucracy around teenagers’ sexual development, with the metaphorical ‘virgin’ tag made literal through an actual physical embodiment. It’s a coming-of-age firmly rooted in the technological, which gives it a uniquely timeless semblance as technology is only becoming more entwined with adolescent development.
Winterbauer’s economic and creative retro-futuristic aesthetic means that Wyrm needn’t fear losing its charm, as part of the flavour is the nostalgia it indulges in. It dances in a vaporwave and neon-drenched light, and reminds you of a time you feel like you’ve had somewhere, someplace, long ago. While interviewing Winterbauer, which you can read here, he actually drew on his own coming-of-age experience: “It felt like I had something people could see on me, to distinguish me from everyone else based on my sexual inexperience – so I thought it would be so funny if kids had to wear these stupid collars that would identify them.” Wyrm is a real satirical dissection of an institutional hyper-focus on adolescent sexuality which at times feels strangely endearing with the openness of conversations depicted.
There’s a sharp, sardonic wit to much of the darker subject matter that gives it a unique personality that feels reflective of the teenage mentality — the blunt honesty and deadpan nature of admissions creates a Lanthimosian sensibility to everyone we meet. One of the standouts is newcomer Azure Brandi, who feels like the spiritual lovechild of Aubrey Plaza and bluntness incarnate. She’s an incredible force of nature in every scene she’s in, threatening to steal the spotlight from even the most central of players with her comedic timing and expertly expressionless face. This contrast of bluntness and absurdity plays off brilliantly against Wyrm’s inaccessibility — a beacon of social awkwardness that feels embarrassingly relatable.
What’s most encapsulating about Winterbauer’s work is his unconventional approach to the coming-of-age structure — spoiler alert, Wyrm’s collar gets popped around halfway. This may leave you wondering ‘Well, isn’t that the film’s central problem?’ That is exactly what Winterbauer is challenging here — by freeing Wyrm of his external conflict, we can return to the characters Winterbauer introduces us to, deepening both our relationship with them and Wyrm’s. It’s Winterbauer’s defiance to the fix-all solution that really defines Wyrm as a beautiful testimony to what it means to be a teenager.
The true problems and issues that Wyrm faces aren’t external, but internal — mending the tattered connections between himself and his sister, resolving his relationship with his dead brother’s ex Lindsay, and even understanding Uncle Chet (Tommy Dewey)’s moments of doubts. It’s a redirection of importance from love to connection, and above all else, introspection. What I love about Winterbauer’s unconventional structure is how beautiful a metaphor his film is for growing up as a teenager — there is no defined structure to it, things just happen to you and you have to make sense of the situation. The only constant are the connections you keep in your school life, and your home life. You are not the main character. No-one is — we are all side characters in each other’s lives.
Ultimately, Wyrm is far more a coming-of-understanding flick than a coming-of-age film, as it reminds us of the importance of developing yourself emotionally, and realising that the world doesn’t revolve around you. We just need to be there for one another, because everyone’s got their own stories that are still being written.
Wyrm screened as this year’s 47th International Seattle Film Festival.