Sarah Plays a Werewolf is a film about a small-town high-school drama club. So you may expect a comedy and not just because of that eyebrow-raising title. There’s probably some pretentious posturing, melodramatic offstage shenanigans, a bit of fretting about the big performance and a heartwarming finale. Maybe a few songs, too? But Swiss director Katharina Wyss’s debut feature, which premiered at the Venice film festival in 2017, is supremely serious about theatre and teenage life, both so often jokily dismissed.
It starts with a discussion about fear and bravery but we haven’t got to the werewolf bit yet. Instead, the conversation revolves around how a group of young actors feel about devising a piece of theatre together. “Does our way of working disturb you?” asks the teacher, as one student admits she’d really rather be handed a script. Theatre is immediately established as a collaborative process, which contrasts with the painful isolation felt by 17-year-old Sarah, who desperately misses her older brother who has left home for college.
At school, she eye-rolls at the way her classmates dismiss Romeo and Juliet as saying nothing about modern-day love; she bunks off the next day, dresses as Juliet, unsheathes a dagger and acts out the suicide scene in front of her young sister, Esther. All of which is made more disturbing by Sarah’s revelation, a few scenes earlier, that her brother killed himself. But we begin to doubt this story and the film keeps us guessing about what is real and what is in Sarah’s imagination.
In her first film, Loane Balthasar is phenomenal in the lead role – somehow both distant yet open. Sarah is a muddle of anger, frustration and fear but full of creative energy. Theatre, it is suggested, is a safe space for her to explore her darkest emotions. So when she and her friend Alice act out a scene they have devised, about the torture of a martyr, they are devastated when the group dismisses its worth. The scene reflects on the abuse Sarah is suffering at home, so the negative reaction – which the teacher strives to steer towards constructive criticism – leaves Sarah feeling raw and exposed.
Like many films about theatre, there are plenty of cultural references here, including to Shakespeare, Georges Bataille and opera. But it is important that the work the young students are creating is given prominence, and treated with respect by Wyss. When the group goes on a day trip we see them, carefully choreographed on a hillside, sharing (inventing?) stories about their fathers. Ironically, for a film that includes so many scenes on stage, this outdoor episode feels closest to theatre.
Wyss’s film is particularly strong at exploring the theatrical nature of everyday teen life – this is the age at which you try out new roles, new costumes, maybe even change your speech as you strive to fit in or stand out. This more studied sense of performance contrasts with the games Esther plays at home, including dressing up and putting tape on her mouth, that are suggestive of the sort of exercises the acting group use. Esther is a reminder of a purer, uninhibited freedom in expression, which so many actors aim to rediscover, and which perhaps feels increasingly lost in the maelstrom of teenage life.
Sarah’s fantasies about suicide – of her brother, her imagined ex-boyfriend, and her own – are painful to watch when a recent study suggests that by her age around 7% of UK children have attempted to kill themselves, and one in four have self-harmed. Watching the film made me think about how rarely I’ve seen teenage mental health accurately depicted on stage. There are similarities here with Florian Zeller’s devastating play The Son, particularly in the unfathomable depression that descends on the lead character. Wyss and her co-writers (several are credited as collaborators) use a tightly knit pattern of imagery about sexuality, violence and performance. Everything feels connected, so when Sarah lashes out and bites another actor during rehearsals, it is the result of a chain of disappointments that includes being abandoned by Alice who has proudly displayed a hickey from her new boyfriend.
This is a captivating film full of ideas about how theatre and life entwine, not least how they both unfold in front of an audience. As a teenager, Sarah is acutely aware of the gaze of others. Her interest in acting is a way to control that gaze and it paradoxically gives her a chance to both escape from, and openly express, herself. I can’t wait to watch what Wyss and Balthasar do next.
• Sarah Plays a Werewolf (Sarah Joue un Loup-garou) is available on Vimeo