Heart-tugging ‘Alpha’ has bite

Kodi Smit-McPhee plays a young, compassionate hunter.

It isn’t the typical “pet” movie, but “Alpha,” set in prehistoric Europe, should keep dog lovers happy—even when the depicted titular animal is actually a savage creature and not a traditionally domesticated canine.

The story is set 20,000 years ago and follows Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a reluctant young hunter in a tribe led by his father, Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhanesson). There’s no nepotism in the group, and one’s place in its hunting force requires the ability to create a formidable weapon.

His father only chooses Keda to be a hunter when he passes that test, sensing real promise and potential. But, while Keda is talented enough to create his own blade, wielding it to slaughter prey is a different matter altogether.

The young hunter is unable to defend himself during their main mission and gets nearly killed by a charging bison, which leads to his apparent death on a cliffside ledge. Distraught and unable to reach his son’s “corpse,” Tau decides to trek back home, unknowingly leaving Keda to fend for himself when he regains consciousness.

Not long after, Keda is spotted by a pack of wolves, but manages to wound one while escaping them. Still, he couldn’t just let the abandoned animal die, and thinks of nursing it back to health—while desperately foraging for food and wondering how he’d outpace the impending winter.

Albert Hughes’ “Alpha,” like many films that center on animal-human dynamics, likewise has its precious “bonding” moments. Keda and Alpha, the wolf, have enough of those—from their shared, stomach-turning “Fear Factor” diets, to surviving life-threatening imbroglios. They make their gradually strengthening bond all the more consequential to viewers.

Abandoned hunter forms a bond with a savage wolf in “Alpha.”

Smit-McPhee, who does well with quirky roles, is fine as a more vulnerable, wide-eyed “everyguy.” But, his lupine sidekick often steals scenes through its impressive “acting chops.”

“Alpha” could serve as a fantastical, folkloric origin story of how some humans may have domesticated wild animals countless eras ago. In any case, it’s a lushly executed, heart-tugging film about symbiosis and friendship.

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