For those unfamiliar with what a "feral child" is, it is a child who from the early years of their life has been denied contact with other humans. Tarzan of the apes and Mowgli from The Jungle Book are probably the most well known feral children of fiction, but there are cases of real life feral children. It's a topic that really intrigues me, and led to my discovery of the French film The Wild Child. A docudrama of sorts, it is based on actual journal entries about "The Wild Boy of Aveyron."
The film opens somewhat abruptly, immediately showing the discovery and capture of the "The Wild Boy," who is eventually named Victor. Victor is found naked in a forest in southern France. He is presumed to be about 12, and seems unable to speak or understand human language. He is taken to a school for deaf mutes, deemed "an idiot child," and treated as something of a tourist attraction. One of those at the school, Dr. Jean Marc Gaspard Itard (played by François Truffaut, who also produced and directed the film) sees things differently than his colleagues, eventually gaining custody of Victor and dedicating his time to civilizing the child. This process takes up the majority of the film. The viewer is taken through the months of Victor's lessons, starting with basic concepts of humanity like walking normally and wearing clothes, and eventually transitioning into understanding language.
The teaching of Victor is without a doubt the most interesting part of the movie. This isn't just because it also happens to be the most interesting part of the true story, but also because the first fourth of the movie is where most of its problems are. The biggest issue the film has is the lack of interest the majority of the characters show in this very intriguing discovery. Dr. Jean Itard and his assistant Madame Guerin seem to be the only characters who realize the significance of Victor. All the other characters just treat it like a normal occurrence, with their only real emotion towards Victor being one of disdain, seeing him as being beneath them. I suppose this was probably intentional, meant to show how Dr. Itard differs from the rest of his colleagues, but I think it's taken a bit too far, making the first fourth of the film lack a certain level of emotion.
Another issue the film has is its limitations from the true story. For example, we don't see what Victor's life was like before he was captured. Why was he abandoned? How did he learn to fend for himself? Was he always completely alone? None of these questions are answered in the movie, because they were never answered in real life. We get some hints, but that's about it. I also felt a bit unsatisfied with the ending. It's not that it's a bad ending, it just felt lacking. However, I must say that I'm happy with their decision to stay close to the facts, with very little dramatization. It may leave me dissatisfied at certain points, but there are enough fictional feral children in the media; it was nice to see the story of a real one.
Ultimately this is a good film despite its faults. A quiet piece that moves at a deliberate pace, I'm not entirely sure I can label it as "entertaining," but I can say it is very engaging. François Truffaut's performance as Dr. Jean Itard is good, and the boy who plays Victor is superb, especially considering that he only speaks about three times. The Wild Child is a very intriguing film that has left me thinking about it long after the credits rolled. Well deserving of the title "a classic," this 40 year-old film holds up surprisingly well, and is definitely worth a look.