Wild Fire begins at dawn – a liminal time of change. There is an immaculate garden surrounded by trees and full of birdsong, and beyond it a beautiful modernist home. Upstairs in the bedroom, a glass and wine bottle sit on the floor, and a silk robe lies discarded on the end of the bed. It might seem a romantic setting, suggestive of love the night before. Yet the idyll is disrupted by the tissues that are also visible on the floor, and by the emptiness of all these spaces. Indeed, when middle-aged Elliana (Celeste Marcone) wakes, she is isolated. The shape beside her in the bed is nor a person but just a pillow, and she reaches to the bedside table to turn over and hide a photo of herself and her late husband David. So in a way the scene is very post-coital and post-romantic, with melancholy to spare, as the recently widowed Elliana is left alone to pick up the pieces of her shattered relationship in a dream house that now feels like solitary confinement. She is lost to grief and uncertainty about her future.
It is Elliana’s 50th birthday, and as she half-heartedly prepares for a big party to celebrate both this milestone and her housewarming, we see several of the guests in their own environments. Academic Del (Jillian Geurts) and her wife Avary (Madeleine Dee) use erotic talk and rôle play to spice up their relationship, but are not entirely in synch with each other’s desires. Massage therapist Ronnie (Siena D’Addario), also a birthday girl if much younger than Elliana, is recently married to her high-school sweetheart Tom (Sam Ball), but secretly masturbates to porn and thinks about other women (including her clients Del and Avary) even while having sex with her husband. Meanwhile, Elliana’s best friend Maeve (Annie Gill) and Maeve’s husband of many years Noah (Todd Licea), who have a daughter (Jessica Marie Trauger) in her teens and on the cusp of her own sexual experiences, have settled into a pattern of having no sex at all.
As day turns to night and the other guests slowly drift away, these six form a hardcore group that stays behind – and up – with Elliana, and a booze-fuelled game of truth or dare will lead to difficult, painful revelations about their attitudes to sex and love, to commitment and communication, to life and death. Some will be forever changed by this confessional, opening up to themselves and one another in a way that they never have before – while others will bury themselves further in loveless repression.
Writer/director Jennifer Cooney’s feature debut evokes Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill (1983) by building its ensemble gathering around an absence. The deceased David represents a boundary marker and a terminus point, where marriage ends and regret steps in. While his relationship with Elliana, and the world of affluence and success that they constructed together around themselves, seem enviable, Elliana has for the first time been left to wonder how real it all was, and how true she was to herself in it. As she contemplates a different kind of end, she sets an example, all at once attractive and cautionary, to her guests, still in the middle of their own relationships that are far from perfect.
At the core of Wild Fire is a debate between the brutally open Del, who is all about the sharing, even the over-sharing, of one’s most intimate feelings, and the buttoned-up Maeve, whose defining words are: “I don’t want to talk about it.” Their argument about the place of honesty in a relationship represents two extreme poles in an ongoing dialectic that involves, to a greater or lesser degree, all the characters. It seems clear where the film comes down on this: Del’s insistence upon telling “the truth about something instead of hiding it” keeps her happy in love, whereas tight-lipped, sex-averse Maeve ends up in a bleak, passionless marriage, while Tom and Ronnie fall somewhere in between, their fragile relationship finding new stability as Ronnie learns to open up about what she really wants, and not just from Tom.
Yet is honesty all that matters? Maeve may be unwilling to confront or work through the problems in her marriage, even when Noel is begging for some frank conversation, and she may end up positioned as the very worst kind of partner, but it is hard to disagree with her suggestion that Del weaponises her own self-congratulatory truthfulness as a “hall pass” to do, and to get away with doing, whatever she likes. Owning up to cheating and adultery is important, and maybe in some circumstances even admirable, but surely it would be better all round to remain faithful in the first place – something which Maeve has done and Del has not – rather than just to be cruelly honest about infidelity later. And surely it is more laudable to divulge your polyamory to a partner before getting married rather than after. Truthfulness has its proper time, and honesty is at its best when upfront.
While Del places great value on talking out any problem, her opening scene shows that she is not in turn a good listener, or at all attentive to what her wife says – repeatedly – that she wants. “Sexual fantasies”, Del claims, “are just emblematic of coveting something in reality. Like power. Always power.” What then are we to make of Del’s own fantasy, expressed to Avary, about heterosexual Maeve watching, and getting wet while watching, as Del and Avary have sex together? What does this tell us about Del’s need to be centred and in control?
Almost all these characters are shown at some point seated in front of a mirror, and while this is certainly a signifier that they are, over this long night of the soul, engaging in a moment or two of self-reflection, it also points to a degree of narcissism. The ‘game’ of truth that they play at Elliana’s luxury home may be no more than that, but it has consequences for all who participate, and even for those, like Maeve, who choose not to. After all, marriage itself is a game of (at least) two halves. Maeve and Noel may seem doomed to each other, but it is not so clear that the other two marriages in the film are entirely healthy either. Perhaps in the end only Elliana, single and alone, truly finds peace and contentment in an uncompromised, entirely truthful version of herself. Which is to say that, although the closing credits will eventually roll on Cooney’s sophisticated film as one dawn is replaced with the next, the conversation that Wild Fire ignites remains unresolved, and so can continue.
strap: In Jennifer Cooney’s dramatic feature debut, three couples and a widow confront home truths about honesty and desire in marriage
© Anton Bitel