Woman with short brown hair dressed in a brown plaid trench coat, multi-coloured scarf and black gloves holding a newspaper.
Maya Hawke plays writer Flannery O'Connor in "Wildcat". (Photograph courtesy of Good Country Pictures)

Topics: Ethical Living, January/February 2024 | Culture

New Flannery O’Connor film misses key parts of her life story

Directed by Ethan Hawke, "Wildcat" idealizes the author despite her controversies


In June 2020, The New Yorker published an essay by Paul Elie titled “How Racist Was Flan­nery O’Connor?” It’s a ques­tion pondered in literary circles for decades. While praising the mythical qualities of O’Connor’s stories, which were set in the Deep South, informed by her Catholic beliefs and marked by the grotesque, Elie also points to the many prejudiced com­ments the author made about Black people in her personal let­ters. But those watching Wildcat and new to O’Connor are unlikely to know this dynamic even exists.

That’s because Ethan Hawke, director and co­writer of the film, has largely skirted the matter in fa­vour of mounting an acting showcase. Interspersed with scenes of a 24­-year­-old O’Connor (played by Hawke’s daughter, Maya) are vignettes of her most celebrated short stories. The re­enactments are meant to illustrate how O’Connor transported her life into her work, but more often than not, they halt momentum.

Wildcat is set in 1950. A pub­lisher criticizes O’Connor’s man­uscript for her first novel, Wise Blood, just as she leaves New York City to return to her fam­ily home in Milledgeville, GA. O’Connor looks up to her heroes Joyce, Kafka and Dostoyevsky but struggles to find her artistic foot­ing, all while despairing about how exactly her talents are meant to serve God. It is also during this period that she is diagnosed with lupus — the autoimmune disease that killed her father nine years earlier and would ultimately take her life in 1964 at the age of 39.

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Among the six O’Connor short stories presented in Wildcat are “Parker’s Back,” in which a man named Obadiah gets a giant tattoo of the face of Jesus, much to his wife’s horror, and “Good Country People,” about a one­ legged atheist who falls victim to a nefarious Bible salesman. Hawke also treats viewers to the cli­mactic moments of “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” It’s the funniest reenactment of the bunch, not least because it’s also one of the briefest.

Throughout Wildcat are glimpses of a greater, more thought­-provoking movie. At a cocktail party, O’Connor reacts harshly to a fellow writer who ad­vises she stop using the N-­word in her work: “The people I’m writing about would never dream of using any other word.” Mo­ments later, she watches silently as partygoers mock the ritual of communion. “It’s a lot harder to believe than not to believe,” she finally snaps. “What people don’t understand is how much religion costs — they think that faith is a big electric blanket, when really, it’s the cross.” But Hawke does not dig deep into these themes. The author’s turbulent relation­ship with her mother, Regina (Laura Linney), is similarly un­derdeveloped.

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The real O’Connor rarely left her characters unscathed, so why does Hawke portray her in such an idealized light? After all, here was an artist who lam­pooned southern bigotry in her work while expressing unease about desegregation in her pri­vate correspondence. Early on in Wildcat, a relative tells O’Connor that her latest short story has left a bad taste in her mouth and asks her to write something cheer­ier. O’Connor sighs. “Well, you weren’t supposed to eat it.”


Robert Liwanag is a digital editor at Navigatr.

This article first appeared in Broadview’s January/February 2024 issue with the title “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman.”

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  • says:

    A review of an AMERICAN author in an AMERICAN movie. I would rather read Canadian content. Thank you