Review by Sean Boelman
Some of the best documentaries are those that uplift and inspire, particularly when they feature kids who are doing some amazing things against the odds. Michiel Thomas’s That’s Wild is a crowd-pleaser in every sense of the word, telling its moving story in a beautiful and compelling way.
The film follows a youth organization based in Atlanta whose goal is to take troubled kids and instill in them a love for the outdoors, culminating in a trip to Colorado to climb four difficult passes. Thomas hit the cinematic jackpot with this story, as it blends elements of the underdog story and the man versus nature arc, both of which are typically riveting on screen.
For the first part of the movie, Thomas offers an introduction to the Wilderness Works program, the people that run it, and more importantly, the kids who participate in it. Thomas focuses on three of the participants in particular, documenting their growth both within and outside of the program, and the glimpse the viewer gets into their personal lives is affecting.
The portion of the film about the program’s founder Bill Mickler isn’t quite as well-developed, but it’s interesting nevertheless. Thomas does a good job of establishing Mickler’s importance as a mentor and role model to these kids, but doesn’t go into enough detail about his motivations. One interview even goes so far as to defend against the perception of Mickler as a “white savior”, something which is never otherwise implied by the movie but may stick in viewers minds after having been mentioned.
There is then a shift in the narrative heading into the final thirty minutes as the subjects embark on their main trip through the Colorado mountains. The trials that the group face are shot in a way that is consistently exciting, but the quieter moments in which the kids are bonding arguably have an even greater emotional impact. Still, since their nearly week-long journey is condensed into a little over a half an hour, the film feels rushed.
As is the case with many movies that explore overcoming challenges, the main message here is one of perseverance and dedication. However, the more resonant angle to this story is that of community. Only by banding together were these kids able to conquer their fears and experience the world in a new light.
Of course, the film features some amazing cinematography. Thomas also shot the movie himself as he accompanied the Wilderness Works crew on their journey, and his film does an excellent job at eliciting a feeling of awe for the beauty of the natural world, just as Mickler hopes to do for these kids with his organization.
That’s Wild is an excellent documentary supporting a wonderful cause, yet it manages to be thoroughly entertaining at the same time. Although it may be a bit too short, it works very well thanks to the charm of its subjects.
That’s Wild premiered as a part of the Florida Film Festival, which runs August 7-20 at the Enzian Theater in Orlando, FL.