FILM REVIEW: Adulthood is a prison in Australian director Sophie Hyde's "Animals"
Animals is a strange beast. Centered around the deeply complex relationship between Laura and her best friend of a decade, Tyler, the film covers womanhood, love, and the creative process, with a muted and rainy Dublin as the backdrop. It’s tender and melancholy, laced with a sharp wit and dreamy, abstract cinematography. It offers no easy answers. Above all, as director Sophie Hyde said in a preface to the screening, Animals is “a story of women - their bodies, desires, and friendships.”
As Animals opens, protagonist Laura (Holliday Grainger) is stifled, and unhappy. She’s a writer without having written anything, noting observations down in a journal she carries everywhere. Thirty-two, locked in a dead-end job and faced with a pregnant sister that has ‘successfully’ progressed into adulthood, she loses herself in drugs and alcohol almost every night. It is a process aided and abetted by her close friend and roommate Tyler (Search Party and Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat), herself also trying to escape a myriad of problems. They’re in their late twenties and early thirties, but they don’t act like it- stealing drugs, creating chaos and fiercely holding onto the recklessness of youth. It helps that both Grainger and Shawkat look young too, with wide eyes and glittery makeup and a general defiant air. Whether they’re happy and free or just drowning is up to interpretation, but the frantic shots and close-ups on Grainger’s mournful face indicate an edge of melancholy to the revelry.
Intercut with the main storyline, we see a fox and a cat wandering the streets, a spider picking and unpicking its web: almost-feral animals, outsiders. The parallels aren’t hard to draw. During a Q&A at Perth cinema Luna Leederville, Hyde responded to a question about the reoccurring animal symbolism, stating that the fox “is neither domesticated nor wild…it lives in an urban environment, but it’s free. That’s the central question [of the film], whether Laura can ever be free.” In Animals, adulthood is prison, and the prime objective is to escape it.
Their lifestyle changes abruptly when Laura meets Jim, a straight-laced pianist, and immediately falls in love. She admires his dedication, but is threatened by his desire to stop drinking, which she equates with growing old. More than anything, she’s terrified of succumbing to the staid, boring life she sees everywhere around her. “The failure is the fairytale,” Tyler tells her. She’s less than supportive of her friend’s monogamous relationship. As Laura continues to pull away, the push-pull of a deteriorating friendship is what drives the second act of the film. It is magnetic and frustrating to watch both characters progress into a downwards spiral, and the climax, when it happens, feels inevitable.
In the post-screening Q&A, Hyde also commented that it was “nearly impossible” to get the film made. It’s true that there’s nothing quite like Animals - Cinema has long ignored the rich inner lives of women and their friendships and non-romantic relationships. “It’s visceral and familiar,” Hyde said. Any woman in the audience is sure to recognize that heady, consuming friendship that comes with being young and lost and searching for meaning. It’s refreshing to see homage paid to that experience - It has been seminal to me, and no doubt many others.
That said, Animals isn’t perfect: Some of the dialogue can come off as a little too self-indulgent at times, and some problems the characters woe over can seem a little too shallow to have much impact. Laura can’t finish her novel, sure, but they are able to eat out constantly and rent a beautiful inner-city apartment on a minimum wage, and buy wedding dresses in short notice. There is a potentially interesting narrative thread on Tyler’s family history that is hastily introduced, but never really interrogated in way that is satisfying. But Animals is expertly shot, and threaded with dreamy imagery and carefully constructed scenes. It makes good use of music, classical and contemporary, and pays careful consideration to work from Yeats and Pound. There is a lot to digest if you accept Animals’ version of reality - and a lot to like. The film is raw and complex, an intricate exploration of what it means to be a friend, a woman, artist and partner in the 21st century. It’s rare, and important, and more than a little wild.