Wolf biologists tell us the animals roam huge swaths of territory in search of food. So, too, with "Wolf," which gnaws on so many ideas that none ends up sticking to its ribs.

It's an intriguingly surreal premise. George MacKay ("1917") plays Jacob. The movie opens with his parents checking him into a treatment facility for young people who believe they are animals. You'll have to go along with that because almost immediately Jacob is hanging out in the cafeteria with a kid who quacks like a duck, another who sobs because no one understands he's a squirrel and a wildcat (Lily-Rose Depp, who resembles mom Vanessa Paradis more than dad Johnny Depp) whom he crushes on.

It's all a metaphor, obviously. If we develop obsessions that aren't hurting anyone, what's the harm in indulging them? If we feel like outsiders, might it help us to connect with others who feel the same? What would happen if we recognized the various tiny gradations of humanity instead of attempting to shoehorn everyone into socially acceptable roles? How are human instincts' different than animals'?

"Wolf" gives us lots to think about. Too much, in fact, because writer/director Nathalie Biancheri can't figure out how to shape the ideas her story suggests. You could argue that her movie is as wild as its half-human characters but that doesn't account for Biancheri's failure to figure out, for instance, what's supposed to be going on at the school/hospital/prison/snake pit where they all live.

In the world of the movie, somebody must be paying for the combo of therapy and punishment that the students receive. If it's their parents, wouldn't they object to their kids being thrown into solitary confinement cages with no company but their own excrement? And what are we to think about the Zookeeper (Paddy Considine), who occasionally indulges the kids by petting them or hand-feeding them treats but also gives into his sadistic impulses by zapping them with a cattle prod?

"We're all animals" and "humans may not be the most civilized creatures," blah blah blah. But those aren't new ideas and much of the movie is so off-putting — get ready for the year's weirdest sex scene to be muddied by issues of wolf consent — that it's hard to work your way back to whatever it is Biancheri had in mind.

Even she seems to throw up her hands by the end of "Wolf." MacKay's committed performance is a marvel — he has transformed his body into something lean and lupine — but as the drama wanders to its conclusion, it leaves us with this: Wolves gotta wolf.


** out of 4 stars

Rated: R for nudity, violence and strong language.

Where: In area theaters.