Movie Review: Animals

It’s about time, you know?

It’s about time, after decades of dysfunctional men in cinema, that we get a little more in the way of the fucked-up woman. Lady Bird delivered the coming-of-age dramedy in style, and Cockblockers landed the raunchy teen sex comedy with panache – but what about what comes next? What about the woman with an axe to grind and some bad sex jokes to crack along the way?

Enter Animals. Directed by Sophie Hyde and adapted from the critically-acclaimed novel of the same name by Emma Jane Unsworth, Animals tracks a pair of interwoven female friends; Laura (Holliday Grainger), a Dublin native and aspiring writer, and Tyler (Alia Shawkat, who you should have been watching in the amazing Search Party by now), an American transplant and good-time party girl. Following the course of their friendship as Laura gets engaged and starts to move on with her life, Animals was billed as an ode to and examination off the ups and downs of female friendship, packed with hot women-on-women emotional denouments, against the background of a pretentious Irish art scene.

And when it comes to Shawkat and Grainger, Animals soars. Their relationship feels eerily accurate of so many aspects of what female friendship has been in my own life; passionate, romantic, platonic, toxic, essential, dangerous. It’s a damn hard thing to capture something that feels both universal and specific at the same time, but Animals, with its leading duo, pulls it off in a way that feels genuinely authentic. Their chemistry is exceptional, and Grainger especially shines as the diffident, difficult lead trying to navigate what a life of creativity looks like in a world of backshifts and baristas. When she’s on-screen, the movie shines, her chemistry drawing out the nuance in all of her relationships, finding depth that the film is occasionally just too vignetted to deep-dive into.

And that’s where Animals struggles to stand on its on two feet.This feel like a film adapted from a book – Unsworth wrote the script for Animals, and I wonder if her intimate understanding of the characters might have gotten in the way of her re-iterating that understanding for a new movie audience. The film feels like a mosaic sometimes, tossing in brief scenes here or there that would have served the themes to elaborate on, but obviously weren’t of interest to the people behind bringing this story to life.

It’s a booze-soaked, cocaine-spattered movie that occasionally leaves you feeling like the one sober person at the party – often, the film seems to be several steps ahead of you, and uninterested in tracking back the space that it would take to catch you up on what you missed. For all its delightful skewering of an aggressively pretentious art scene (as a writing bastard myself, the depictions of the literary salons brought back memories I wished never to relive), too often it allows those tropes to overwhelm its own storytelling. It wants to sit snarkily outside this world but at the same time be a part of it, which could have been an interesting reflection of Grainger’s central conflict if the film had the nerve to delve into it a little deeper and not just have a bunch of arty shots of sex and scribbled-in notebooks as easy transitions.

Animals is almost an excellent film – it’s certainly a strong and engaging look at female friendship, and the notion of belonging and un-belonging within that. But instead, despite the passionate and powerful relationship at its core, it struggles to bring everything else into the sharp relief that I wanted it to. Though Animals makes a noble attempt, or now, I’m still holding out for my truly great new movie about dysfunctional womanhood.

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By Louise MacGregor

(header image via Esquire)

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