Like the onset of hormones, Cam Archer’s Wild Tigers I have Known mixes a heady swirl of daydreams and stripped-down self-awareness, resulting in a coming of age story as authentic as it is artful. It opens on grainy home video of two varsity wrestlers competing with one another in at a school match. As is often the case with wrestling, the exhibition can be unintentionally provocative, yet unmistakably sexual.
The focus closes, the young men dissolve into a pixilated haze, and the film cuts to 13-year-old Logan (Malcolm Stumpf) masturbating to the footage. His choice of erotica is just a little too fitting: the wrestlers’ match, drawn out in slow motion as their bodies contort and lunge and straddle one another, mirrors the symbolic struggle that Logan will endure with other boys in the film. It becomes one of two overarching metaphors that help fill in for scant plot.
The second metaphor arrives in the form of a mountain lions, one having recently been spotted and subsequently shot dead at Logan’s junior high school. School officials become concerned at the threat, launching safety demonstrations and mountain lion awareness campaigns. If the animal’s relationship to homosexuality is not subtle (neither is it particularly clever), Logan’s fascination with the animal’s demise gives him room to explore his sexuality in reality, without having to employ the film’s main device to do so: daydream sequences.
The first of these, triggered by Logan’s watching Rodeo (Patrick White) shower in the locker room, takes us to a dark forest where Rodeo, shirtless and dirt-speckled, meanders around trees as coolly as any wild feline would. Logan lies in a nearby meadow, fingers grazing the tops of flowers, while extreme, white-washed close-ups of Rodeo’s face fill the screen. As Logan fantasizes about the several years older Rodeo, the film cuts to the dreamer, eyes closed, so the camera objectifies him as well, taking long, slow passes over his boyish face and hairless armpits.
Logan begins to understand his budding homosexuality through these sequences, visually complex and engaging as a glimpse into the sexually-charged miasma of a teenage boy’s brain. Wild Tigers includes some story too: Logan begins experimenting with women’s mannerisms, dress, and makeup. Posing in the mirror, he flirts with himself as a girl as much as he imagines liking girls, but repeatedly finds himself embroiled in another fantasy about Rodeo. Once, while fighting the urge to put on makeup or paint his nails, he sees his own hand transformed into a lion’s paw, and as Logan identifies more and more with the creature, he also begins to question his ability to live in a straight world, imagining himself a wild animal who cannot survive in the suburbs.
This questioning takes shape mostly through his interactions with his best friend Joey (Max Paradise) and his feisty mother (Fairuza Balk). Something of an ideal mom, she is as accepting of her son’s sexuality as she is worried about his future (finding him asleep on the couch in her makeup, she cradles him as she removes it gently with a tissue). Joey’s reactions are less mature, though he does his best not to judge Logan’s odd behaviors. When Joey wants to take “baseball” pictures with his new camera, Logan insists on wearing his lipstick for the shot, despite his friend’s resistance. Later, when Joey finally asks him, “Are you gay?” Logan, in a blond wig, grapples briefly with the question and then denies he is. The answer is as sad for us as it is for Logan, providing no resolution or comfort. The moment aptly sums up the many difficulties of adolescence, gay or straight or in between.