Animals is a coming-of-age story with a difference. Arguably, two! Adapting her own 2014 novel of the same name, screenwriter Emma Jane Unsworth centres her take on the archetype on no teenager, but a woman in her mid-thirties – Laura, played by Holliday Grainger. Laura’s age is the first point of difference. Yes, we’ve seen this kind of story before – Hollywood is rife with comedies populated by arrested-development boymen – but rarely with a woman at its centre: the film’s second point of difference.
It’s that point of difference that makes Animals shine. As director Sophie Hyde observed in her Q&A at New Farm Cinemas this week, films about female friendship are not only infrequent, female friendship on screen typically skews towards saccharine sweetness or adversarial jealousy rather than something richer, something more ambiguous in the uneven centre. With Laura and her co-dependent bestie, Tyler (Alia Shawkat), Animals inhabits that uneven centre and explores its complexities.
Not that this is a dry examination of friendship by any means! Tyler and Laura’s friendship is largely realised through bacchanalian excess: long nights, deep glasses of wine and an even deeper jar of MDMA. The pair’s near-parasitic bond is implied to be the result of their friends and family turn to more …conventional pursuits like children and careers. But Hyde and cinematographer/editor Bryan Mason avoid depicting their hedonism with a judgemental lens; instead, the film is buoyed by a glittery (if somewhat grimy) aura of joy as our gleeful protagonists drunkenly explore the back alleys and dive bars of Dublin.
As their functional alcoholism descends into something less than functional, an alternative appears: Jim (Fra Fee). A well-tended pianist, his combination of discipline and talent innately appeals to Laura, whose own ambitions towards writing have settled into a state of perpetual stasis. Jim and Laura’s burgeoning romance swiftly shifts into seriousness, culminating in an impromptu engagement that pries upon the wedge between Tyler and Laura. Soon, Laura finds herself torn between Tyler – parties and poetry and pleasures – and the safe conformity represented by Jim.
It’s testament to Animals’ uniqueness that she settles for neither. Where stories of this ilk tend to take a leaf from romantic comedies – big gestures, huge reversals, life-changing climaxes – Unston’s script instead oscillates from pole to pole. Laura tries to take her writing seriously, to play house with Jim, but just as quickly finds herself a dozen drinks in and flirting with a poet (Dermot Murphy). The film’s midsection is a dizzying tug-of-war, as Laura attempts to find herself in other people before realising that she exists at neither end of the rope.
The film overreaches in its final minutes. In reaching for an optimistic conclusion that prioritises creative expression over friends and men and other such binaries, Hyde obviates much of the alluring ambiguity that impelled the film, and closes on a shot that rivals The Departed for over-obvious animal metaphors. But Animals’ imperfections are simpatico with its protagonist’s messiness, and demonstrative of Hyde’s distinctive talent behind the camera. There aren’t enough films like Animals.