Pubescence is where the wild things are, and it is in this jungle of raging hormones and alienation that writer-director Cam Archer's "Wild Tigers I Have Known" situates Logan (Malcolm Stumpf), a gangly young boy with great hair but an unfortunate fashion sense that separates him from all the other lions and tigers and bears.
His oh-mying mom (Fairuza Balk) seems only to reprimand him, and his best buddy Joey (Max Paradise) casually suffers the brunt of his pent-up aggressions. Logan is prone to putting on lipstick, identifies with a mountain lion that has been spotted around his school's perimeter and finds himself attracted to an older boy, Rodeo (Patrick White), whom he befriends by day but stalks by night, telephoning under the guise of a girl named Leah.
Archer understands the loneliness and fear of gay awakening, best expressed in scenes where Logan stares at Rodeo in the boys' locker room, closing his eyes either to fantasize about his new object of affection or to regret that he was looking in the first place. (This is junior high after all, and a brawl could ensue at any moment — not unlike the scuffles between tigers on Animal Planet — should anyone identify the threatening implication behind the boy's roving, hungry eyes.)
Logan's masquerade as Leah is desperate, a mad attempt to procure sexual affections his naïve self is unable to fully understand, and his ruse is so transparent, even to him, that he thinks Rodeo is truly into him.
Archer is obsessed with the idea of adolescence as an uninterrupted nightmare of embarrassments and mixed messages, aestheticizing "Wild Tigers I Have Known" in such a way that it resembles a feed from some alien network TV program. The film is a persistent spectacle of audio-visual mood and twee posturing: Strange musical currencies underscore almost every scene, and Logan's acts of scoping and cocooning, in and out of Joey's planetary-themed bedroom, are punctuated with fuzzy video of animals on the hunt.
At his most commonsensical (which is to say, down to earth), Archer has this baby cub of a human being measuring his penis for the first time with great curiosity and cutting a strand of his hair to dangle it from one of his smooth armpits. Otherwise, the director exploits his poetic license, propping Logan against wood-paneled walls, his disaffection scrawled on his chest and tummy in red lipstick ("I just want to be loved") and stressed, over and over again, by telephone-filtered narration.
This is lyricism at its most extreme, at once gripping and off-putting because Archer views his characters as if he were gawking at them through the bars of a cage. This becomes a distancing effect in the most literal sense of the term as "Wild Tigers" exudes a perpetual sense of aloofness. Suggesting Marc Romanek's parody of lecherous Calvin Klein ads for Fiona Apple's "Criminal" video, the film is nothing if not self-indulgent.
Hung up on a world were every boy is coiffed like a Brooklyn hipster (except for Joey, whose head of hair appears to have been designed by the stylist from "Diff'rent Strokes"), rotary phones are still in fashion and a black-and-white live performance by Nina Simone inexplicably plays on network television, Archer isn't so much pondering the tigers he's known as he is romanticizing his own delayed adolescence.
"Wild Tigers I Have Known." Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes. Exclusively at Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (323) 848-3500.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times