In a cinematic landscape that is currently experiencing a surge of teenage coming-of-age tales, Sophie Hyde (52 Tuesdays) brings another side of the story: the ‘coming-of-age’ as you approach your thirties, a time where the evidence of your twenties is still present despite the looming decade brimmed with higher expectations and the fulfilment of cultural norms. With this offering, Hyde joins the likes of Desiree Akhavan (Appropriate Behaviour, The Bisexual) in offering authentic and refreshing portrayals of the female millennial experience on screen.
Based on Emma Jane Unsworth’s 2014 novel of the same name, Animals chronicles the antics of party-obsessed best friends Laura (Holliday Grainger) and Tyler (Alia Shawkat). The two have been enjoying their fair share of debauchery in Dublin for more than a decade — as established by the well-worn friendship montage in the film’s opening. Despite the growing comments of dismay from their loved ones, Tyler is seemingly content with their midlife wanderings that refuse to conform to the conventions of the nuclear family, proclaiming (after asking Laura to observe the deafening muteness of the suburb) ‘it’s the non-sound of the suburb. They sell it to you as peace, but it’s death’. While Shawkat’s happy-go-lucky character does not necessarily steer too far away from comedic roles she has played in the past, the film’s milieu amps her unstoppable, and unapologetically American, energy.
Laura, however, has to confront a more significant hiccup in her crossroad. The aspiring writer, who somehow manages to keep a firm grasp of her notebook amidst their many drunken and drugged adventures, always takes notes of her surroundings — often using Tyler as her muse. After spending the decade unable to finish her novel, an intensely driven and passionate new partner makes her aware of her shortcomings.
Her eventual fiancé, Jim, is a classical pianist. Despite meeting him at their usual bar, with their signature glass of white wine in hand, Jim eventually embodies an antithesis to Laura’s boozy lifestyle. Although he is by no means puritanical, Jim quits alcohol altogether, as a result of his dedication to his craft. This further heightens Tyler’s dissatisfaction with the new ‘third wheel’ to their long-term friendship. Suddenly, Laura finds herself alienated from the party-hard lifestyle she built with her best friend in their messy apartment.
Laura’s ‘tinkering’ lifestyle is further antagonised by her sister Jean’s (Amy Molliy) embrace of domesticity. Jean’s entry to the ‘baby club’ is a shock to Laura, the elder once being the third addition to their trifecta. As much as their parents pretend to appreciate both of their daughters’ current life decisions, there is an undeniable feeling of disappointment when Laura proclaims she has only finished ten pages of her novel, sheathing an awkwardness during family dinners that audiences may find themselves either eye-rolling over or be overwhelmed by its reliability.
Mirroring Laura’s incapability to finish her novel, the film inhibits itself from the conventional Hollywood ending, to such an extent that the open-ending feels unjust — leaving too many plot holes to leave the viewer truly satisfied. Tyler’s background, in particular, is seemingly brisked over in the name of establishing Laura’s story. The script evolves into an exploration of Laura’s perspective, leaving Tyler and her unfulfilled backstory behind. Although both actresses have their unique charm, Grainger is an absolute standout. It’s refreshing to see her away from period-dramas and using the ‘film’s comedic moments to her advantage. The focus on her character also allows Grainger to wholly embody a woman on the brink of turmoil, creating a striking contrast to Shawkat’s character.
Hyde’s venture into commercial comedy-drama does show evidence of her prior arthouse work, and the narrative’s hazy trajectory, while off-putting to some viewers, immerses us within the characters’ brimming feeling of ambivalence and uncertainty. Hyde also triumphantly directs her two leads, their chemistry seamlessly natural, making the ‘break up’ between the best friends even more painful.
Animals is the perfect example of female storytellers being able to flaunt unprecedented, truthful insights into female friendships. Akin to classics such as Frances Ha (2012), Animals fiercely portrays the heartache and complexities of female friendships; relationships which extend beyond family, bonds which, due to the inevitability of growing up and growing apart, can hurt more than romantic break-ups.
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