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Non-Review Review: Animals

Animals lacks any real bite.

At its core, Animals is the story of the unhealthy relationship that exists between Laura and Tyler. Laura is a Dublin girl, with close ties to her extended family. Tyler is an American abroad, a young woman who seems to be running as far away from her family as possible. A chance encounter on a night out brought the two together in their twenties, and they have since become inseparable. Laura lives with Tyler in her lavish city centre apartment, while Tyler is a welcome guest at all of Laura’s family gatherings. The two seem to share a single life.

Putting the matter to bed.

Naturally, that relationship has begun to strain and fray as the women enter their thirties – Laura is about two years older than her best friend, while Tyler’s thirtieth birthday is a significant event in the context of the film. Laura seems to want to move on, to embrace adulthood and responsibility; she courts a young professional pianist named Jim and tries desperately to work on the novel she’s been picking over for the last decade. Tyler pushes back against this, terrified at the prospect that her best friend might leave her behind to wallow in her own hedonistic insecurities.

Animals is too generic to make a meaningful impression. Its major character and narrative beats are all helpfully signposted from the get-go, its destination obvious from the end of the first few scenes. However, there’s not enough substance present to justify that sense of inevitability, the leisurely-paced journey towards a foregone conclusion that hits every expected plot point and character moment along the way. Animals feels very much like every other “young person has a life crisis and has to find a way to be comfortable with themselves” narrative of the past decade, with little to distinguish it.

At home on the (G)rainger.

The issue with Animals isn’t that its characters are self-involved or unpleasant people. After all, there have been countless insightful and effective dramas built around the anxieties of self-involved young people trying to make sense of their lives. The problem with Animals is that the self-involvement on display is trite and overly familiar. Laura and Tyler are hardly compelling or engaging characters, often feeling like stock archetypes with the volume turned way up, leaving little space for humanity or complexity.

Laura is that familiar cliché, the writer writing about the writer. The writer protagonist is always something of a red flag in these sorts of narratives, a reminder that “write what you know” is not always a literal commandment. Writer protagonists are often underdeveloped and presented with an assumed sympathy, rooted in the suggestion that their struggles to create immediately elevate their existential crises. A character is assumed to have an interiority because they are a writer, or assumed to have a perspective of greater importance because they are a writer.

To be fair, there are any number of counter-examples that have stood the test of time; Adaptation, Barton Fink, The Shining and even Can You Ever Forgive Me? from earlier this year. (It is perhaps notable that most of these films are less than flattering in their portrayal of their protagonists and their process.) However, this approach can also feel very indulgent. To the credit of writer Emma Jane Unsworth, adapting her own novel, Laura is never as insufferable as other recent writer protagonists like Will Dempsey from Life Itself or Rat Billings from Adult World. However, she also never feels like more than a bundle of clichés.

(The film itself is just as guilt. Befitting the title, there is a strained recurring metaphor involving the animals that roam Dublin at night – the cats and the foxes – as characters ruminate, “What is an animal’s primary need?” The film ends with a completely unironic sequence in which Laura rides in a taxi through Dublin while flashing back over the events of the film. It is worryingly and frustratingly close to the ending of The Art of Driving in the Rain, except with an even stronger sense of pseudo-profundity and self-importance.)

Party animals.

Tyler is just as much a collection of clichés; she is immediately established as self-centred, possessive and manipulative. She is a toxic influence on Laura. The pair’s life is one continuous bender; swigging cocktails and stealing drugs. Tyler’s life is effectively a college night out that never ended, the pair making ends meet by taking shift work in coffee shops. (How the pair can afford their lavish apartment on the salary of baristas working – by their own admission – minimum hours is never made clear.) The continuous party is not enough for Tyler, she needs companionship. And so she is slowly suffocating Laura.

Naturally, things come to a head when Laura becomes involved with Jim. Jim is a young musician. He is handsome, charming, and very square. He doesn’t drink as much as Laura and Tyler, and he offers Laura the sort of reassurance and support that Tyler simply doesn’t. Soon, Laura and Jim are living together. Then they are engaged. Tyler responds to this exactly as one might expect. She proceeds to continuous and aggressively undermine her friend; accusing her of being a bad feminist for wanting a relationship, trying to force Laura to cheat so as to sabotage the engagement, and drawing Laura into a series of benders.

And this is pretty much Animals. An inevitable and inescapable series of predictable plot beats unfold from there. Tyler continues to be an insidious and corrosive influence on her friend, and Laura continues to indulge her despite the escalating tensions. Naturally, Laura doesn’t actually confront Tyler until the right point in the movie’s three-act structure. It is in response to one particular absurd transgression, but the transgressions have bled together at that point. There is no sense of why this is the straw that breaks the camel’s back, except that the film is winding down and needs something approaching a resolution.

(The narrative is achingly mechanical, particularly in its effort to avoid being too critical of any of its major characters. When Laura messes up in a drunken and drug-fueled haze and commits a potentially engagement-endangering indiscretion, the film is very careful to avoid any insinuation that this action might be a result of the confluence of Laura’s particular choices, insecurities and circumstances. It turns out that Jim is equally at fault. The real contrivance is that Jim is exactly equally at fault, in a manner that makes it clear that the two are exactly equivalent to one another. It’s a very cynical and inelegant piece of plotting.)

Drinking it all in.

This is a shame, because there are elements of Animals that could work, that are engaging, and that simmer with potential. Most superficially, it is nice to see a story of young female friendship that accepts that young women can be just as toxic to one another as their male counterparts. As noted, Laura is precisely the sort of generic and indulgent portrait of a young would-be writer that male screenwriters have been crafting for decades on end. Holliday Grainger does what she can with the material, but occasionally struggles under an Irish accent that is only intermittently convincing.

Similarly, the character of Tyler feels like squandered potential, an opportunity to create a complex and multifaceted portrayal of an anarchistic force. Instead, the character as realised is a collection of familiar clichés, oscillating between a very forced idea of “charming rebel” and something closer to “cartoon villainy.” To her credit, Alia Shawkat finds some humanity simmering beneath the tropes, hinting at a depth that the movie never quite finds between various suggestions about the strained relationship with her father and her disinterest in her own family.

Animals is a disappointment, and all the more frustrating for the talent and potential involved.

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