SXSW Film Festival ’18: ‘American Animals’ is a crime drama that echoes the struggles of discovering one’s identity

This review is by our guest writer, Christina Huang.
Ever since we were young, most of us were led to believe that we are something special, and that one day we’ll have a moment that can totally change our lives. Unfortunately, that’s not true for almost everyone. ‘American Animals’ tells the somewhat-true story of the desire to be different and to find our defining moment, and how this hunger can lead people down a path of self-destruction.

Evan Peters, Bart Layton, Jared Abrahamson, Blake Jenner, and Barry Keoghan in American Animals (2018). © Sundance Institute

While I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, the film focuses on a group of young men, led by Warren Lipka (Evan Peters) and Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan), who want to steal extremely valuable books from their school library. Their motivation behind the robbery is to finally have that moment that will change their lives forever. They believe that in order to not be ordinary, they must take matters into their own hands, instead of waiting for a life-changing opportunity to come along. Warren and Spencer’s identity crisis slowly leads them into a downward spiral as they ascend deeper and deeper into their scheme. They end up dragging Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) and Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) into the conspiracy, bringing them down as well. Although the boys are aware that the robbery that they have planned is wrong, they believe that if they continue living their mundane lives in Kentucky, they will never live up to the image of success that has been embedded into their minds.

In order to really understand the thoughts of our characters, the director, Bart Layton, mixes multiple genres into a single film. Part of the movie is, of course, a crime and drama film. Surprisingly, another portion of the film is a documentary. Layton intertwines the actions of the characters with explanations from the actual men themselves. Through this, we are able to get a grasp of their ideas and their justifications for the boys’ actions. Even though the combination of vastly different genres might seem risky, Layton pulls it off in a very smooth fashion. It is not very difficult for the audience to switch between the documentary parts and the narrative portions, because they are so well-balanced and connected.
In addition to Layton’s directing, the cast gives phenomenal performances. Barry Keoghan once again proves that he is a force to be reckoned with. Evan Peters and Blake Jenner give fabulous performances as well. Although this was the first time I have ever seen Jared Abrahamson, he shows that he is definitely someone to watch for. The cast definitely brought their best to this movie. Through their performances, we were able to truly feel the confusion and angst that these characters felt.
‘American Animals’ is a smart, clever, funny, and emotionally devastating film about how the search for identity led to the downfall of four young men. The marvelous performances, along with a stellar soundtrack and creative shots, make it a must see. Although Bart Layton may not be an American, he definitely showcases an undoubtedly American story in a way that shows the mass confusion and the struggle of realizing that each of us is not any more special than the next person.

Christina Huang is a guest writer for Much Ado About Cinema. You can find her on twitter here. If you would like to contribute your own essay or review to the site, please email, or use the contact form provided.

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