Wildfire is one of those films that succeeds on a micro-level. From scene to scene, it is packed with raw emotionality and scarily believable hysteria. When you begin to zoom out and look at the bigger picture, everything becomes less acutely focused and slightly more hazy. This murkiness often leaves you wondering whether the film’s script went through a long enough gestation period. It feels like a messy, self indulgent cut of a film that could have been even better with some prudent editing and a better sense of which plot points deserved to be prioritised. It succeeds so effortlessly at drawing out the emotions of complicated, damaged women and it’s a shame that it isn’t as consistent as it should be. 

The plot is the stuff of a good old fashioned woman’s picture. The mysterious, slightly unstable Kelly (Danika McGuigan) returns home to Ireland after a lengthy, unexplained absence. She bursts back into the life of her sister Lauren (Nora-Jane Noone), who had reported her sister missing. Kelly moves in with her sister and structures her life around her day-to-day schedule. Lauren works at a fulfilment centre and is in a long-term relationship with Sean (Martin McCann). Kelly’s entrance into their carefully organised lives upsets the equilibrium in their household. Kelly and Lauren’s mother committed suicide when they were both very young and the event left them with severe emotional trauma. Kelly begins to feel lonely and displays odd behaviour. This triggers Lauren’s protective urges and the two sisters begin to recede further and further into their own private world, as the people around them express concern over Kelly’s worsening mental state. 

Writer-director Cathy Brady is at her most confident when she’s dealing with vibes and sudden but unavoidable bouts of depression. As the tension slowly builds and it become clear that ongoing arguments cannot be de-escalated, Brady closes in on the sad inevitability of the situation. Kelly is a raw nerve who is so desperate for affection that she smothers her relatives with kind acts that end up annoying them, rather than inspiring gratitude. When she tries to retreat and give them some space, her quiet reserve is interpreted as cold aloofness and resentment. Everybody expects her to spin out of control and that makes it difficult for her to feel like she can start fresh and rebuild her crumbling life. Brady stages scenes in a way that gives us an understanding of everybody’s perspective. We feel enormous sympathy for Sean, as his previously happy relationship is destroyed by the entry of Kelly into his life. At the same time, we come to understand why it is so essential to extend sympathy to those who suffer from depression and crippling self doubt. When you treat a person suffering from trauma as though they’re a wild animal, they will feel as though life consists of endless misery and there is no way out. 

Crystel Fournier’s cinematography also plunges us into the headspace of a person who feels like everybody is out to get them. Kelly is frequently depicted as the most vibrant person in any room. Her red hair looks almost comically fiery, her skin is ghostly pale and she wears misshapen clothing that awkwardly hangs off her body. Fournier’s use of colour grading reminds us that she is never at home in any location and looks like a volcanic, earthy creature who is constantly on the precipice of erupting. She wants to be a part of the drab, grey world around her but we also notice how the boredom of living in a small town could push somebody to feel trapped. She’s only really happy when she’s swimming in the lake and encountering children who have never met her before. Even in these scenes, in which she shyly smiles at the children and doesn’t feel as though they are judging her, there is the sense that her joy is fleeting. That emotionally bruised quality doesn’t entirely disappear and the desperation seems to come close to swallowing her whole. Even brief respites from the pain of everyday life are ruined by the knowledge that she will never have the opportunity to fully run away from her past and begin a new life. This bittersweet melancholy is conveyed through the framing of the shots of her swimming. She’s just barely keeping her head above water, but she seems far safer than she does on land. She could easily be subsumed into the lake, and yet she fights against the urge to kill herself and leave all her sorrows behind. 

Wildfire finds ways to get to the core of uncomfortable, deeply distressing human emotions, and then falls off a cliff during its third act. A story which had previously felt grounded and realistic, becomes highly melodramatic and overblown. Improbable plot twists are introduced and everything wraps up a little too neatly. When you have a story about something as messy and difficult to control as mental health, it feels like a betrayal to tie everything up in a tidy fashion. The childhood flashbacks also twist the knife a little too much in trying to make you feel sympathy for the protagonists. If Brady had just allowed McGuigan and Noone to convey their feelings about their mother’s death through dialogue, it would have been so much more affecting. In addition, it feels very Screenwriting 101 to have an object that becomes a point of contention in the first scene, play a key role in determining the outcome of the story. You just know that the object will make its way back into the story and when it finally does, it is difficult to stifle a groan. Something that is meant to give the story a poetic quality, becomes thuddingly obvious and awkwardly implemented. 

It’s a well made, well acted drama that loses momentum as it nears the finish line. Its greatest assets are able to carry it through some uneven territory and, even though it loses its way, its best moments are not tainted by the unfortunate twists and turns that the screenplay takes. 

Rating: ★★★

Modern Films released WILDFIRE in UK and Ireland from 3 September 2021