Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
Scene from Wildcat of Maya Hawke reading

Capturing a Misfit: A Review of “Wildcat”

May 2, 2024


Flannery O’Connor was both an exceptional narrative artist and a devout Roman Catholic, an unfortunately rare combination, but a combination on accurate, alarming, and reverent display in Ethan Hawke’s new film, Wildcat. The idea for the project came from his daughter Maya Hawke, who discovered O’Connor’s fiction as a high school student and who later wrote a monologue inspired by O’Connor’s Prayer Journal for her audition at Julliard. Maya, best known for playing Robin in Stranger Things, brilliantly and convincingly embodies Flannery O’Connor in Wildcat, while also presenting a variety of always memorable and sometimes pitiable characters from O’Connor’s short stories with aplomb: Sarah Ham (“The Comforts of Home”); Lucynell (“The Life You Save May Be Your Own”); Mary Grace (“Revelation”); Hulga Joy (“Good Country People”); and my personal favorite, Sarah Ruth (“Parker’s Back”).  

In writing the screenplay, Ethan Hawke and Shelby Gaines had to figure out how to tell the story of O’Connor’s life—as she was struggling to publish Wise Blood, her first novel—and to faithfully present her strange, dark, comic fiction to their audience. Just as Wise Blood was not a conventional novel, Wildcat is not a conventional film. It is not a documentary, nor does it attempt to tell complete short stories verbatim; rather, it is the dramatic action of the mystery that is Flannery O’Connor’s intense and intelligent young life told primarily through judiciously chosen sections of her stories, essays, letters, and prayers, and a liberal dose of splendid acting, which come together in one beautiful and remarkable motion picture. It’s something like the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs in its use of several vignettes to tell one complete story, except this story about Flannery O’Connor actually happened.

I remember laughing and being horrified.

I’ve been studying Flannery O’Connor for over twenty-five years, and I still remember reading “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” for the first time, and then “The River” and “Good Country People.” I remember laughing and being horrified. I remember wondering what I had just read and not knowing if I liked it or not. I remember asking friends and family members to read with me so that I could discuss these dark and humorous stories. I didn’t find many takers. So, I looked to O’Connor herself for answers. I picked up a hardbound used copy of The Habit of Being at Half Price Books and started to get to know the woman behind the stories through her letters. I discovered she was a devout Catholic, a voracious reader, a terrible speller, a good friend, funny as funny gets, and was slowly dying of lupus. Next, I bought a copy of Mystery and Manners, a collection of her essays in which she goes about explaining how she understands art, and faith, and writing in the South, and writing as a Catholic. Since then, I’ve read everything in her canon, plus most of the secondary sources. I’ve taught her stories, written articles, and recently published a book about Flannery O’Connor. Needless to say, I was thrilled when I heard that Wildcat was in the works. I am very grateful to Eric Groth, the executive producer of the film, for providing me with the opportunity to have an early screening of the film.

I had often thought that Emma Stone would play a good Flannery O’Connor, but I am glad it was Maya Hawke. In fact, if Stone’s acting in Poor Things earned her the Oscar for best actress in 2024, I think Hawke should take it in 2025 for Wildcat. The masterful acting is comparable, but Hawke takes on more characters, and unlike Bella in Poor Things, Flannery O’Connor would be a desirable friend. 

O’Connor’s most famous character is arguably The Misfit from “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Although we get a glimpse of him in Wildcat, the real Misfit of the film is O’Connor herself. She is a gifted female Catholic writer from the South who makes her way to the distinguished Iowa Writer’s Workshop to earn her MFA. Most of her professors and fellow students are men, many are from the North, and most don’t believe in God—and if they do, their understanding of him is puerile at best. Her talent as a writer is certainly recognized, but she never really seems to fit. In a notable scene, O’Connor joins a dinner party at the home of Robert “Cal” Lowell (played by Phillip Ettinger) but finds herself a misfit with any conversation or activity at the gathering. She’s not a heavy drinker, she’s not promiscuous, she’s not about small talk, and when the talk gets serious and the Eucharist becomes an object of ridicule, she, sitting at the center of a table reminiscent of the last supper, humbly but courageously asserts, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” And although O’Connor’s following lines are not historically from the same event, Hawke and Gaines appropriately insert them with creative liberty and fidelity to O’Connor’s theology: “What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe.” 

It was the one place in which she felt that she fit—that she belonged, because at the center of Catholicism is a crucified misfit.

Flannery O’Connor was a misfit not just in Iowa but also in her home state of Georgia, which is where she returned and remained from the age of twenty-five until her death at thirty-nine due to lupus. She had hoped to live in New York City as a famous writer, but her health brought her home, where she moved in with her mother on a working dairy farm in Milledgeville. O’Connor loved her mother Regina (played by Laura Linney), and was dependent upon her, but she also struggled mightily with her mother’s inability to understand her art and her vocation and the depth and intellectual rigor of her Catholic faith. Regina and her friends regularly encouraged Flannery to “write something that a lot of people would like,” and preferred the comfort of sentimentality to the weight of reality. 

I am convinced the primary reason Flannery O’Connor was so serious about her Catholic faith is that it was the one place where she experienced being seen and understood and loved; it was the one place in which she felt that she fit—that she belonged, because at the center of Catholicism is a crucified misfit. If Jesus is God, and if he was like us in all things but sin, including suffering and death, and then rising from the dead, well, then that means that O’Connor’s suffering can be redemptive too. It means that life is worth living and that the struggle is worth it and that somehow grace will break through even and especially when the pain and heartache is severe. 

I have watched Wildcat twice, and on both viewings during the scene when Flannery receives a pastoral visit from her priest (played by Liam Neeson), I wept. And I’m not a weeper. In fact, the other day I tried to recount this scene to a priest friend and got choked up in my attempt. I think the reason for all the emotion is that in this dramatic and cathartic moment, Maya Hawke perfectly captures the raw, and desperate, and holy desire of Flannery O’Connor to both serve God and to be a great writer, and she longs for affirmation of these desires, since they are so rarely seen together. 

Anyone who has both wanted to serve God and make great art will likely weep at this scene, and probably other scenes in Wildcat too. Like O’Connor’s stories, not everyone will understand Wildcat and not everyone will like it, but O’Connor didn’t write fiction for a lot of people to like, and Ethan Hawke didn’t make this film to be a blockbuster. He made it to be good art. And he succeeded. 

Whoever has eyes, let them see.

Bishop Barron’s Interview with Ethan and Maya Hawke: