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{Sundance 2023} My Animal – review

Love can make a man become a beast, but love can also make a beast beautiful,” Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre ushers in lycan queer coming-of-age My Animal.

Courtesy of Sundance

The TV cast a light on protagonist Heather (Bobbi Salvör Menuez) going increasingly wild, lapping up these words of hope and love before howling at the moon on a violent rampage.

This Beauty and the Beast prologue sets the tone for Jacqueline Castel’s feature debut, a neon-soaked, queer she-wolf story of self-discovery. 

My Animal uses lycanthrope metaphors to portray alienation

Premiering at Sundance Film Festival, the movie suggests there’s nothing more powerful and terrifying than being young and in love, pushing a werewolf metaphor to portray otherness and isolation.

Heather, brought to life by Menuez’s restrained performance, knows a thing or two about feeling estranged in her 1980s snowy small town. A Lycan turned on at the sight of female wrestlers fighting, this quiet lead struggles with her most visceral needs. 

Her alienation works on a double level. Heather is a queer woman in a town where nothing ever happens and an impulsive, potentially fatal monster who needs to be chained to her bed at every full moon. Heather doesn’t have much going on for herself, desperately trying to suppress what makes her unique and consistently failing. 

Dealing with casual bullying and sexism, particularly when she insists on joining the local hockey team, she barely keeps her anger at bay. This skilled goalie also faces abuse from her own mother (Heidi von Palleske), who finds solace in the bottle, and her younger twin brothers (Charles and Harrison Halpenny).

Her lycan dad (Stephen McHattie) is the only character who’s ever kind and understanding. He provides Heather with a sage, benevolent guide in an otherwise indifferent, if not openly adverse, environment.

Red as a chromatic thermometer for Heather and Jonny

Dreaming of a normal life from behind the concession stand of the local ice rink, the protagonist immediately falls for newcomer Jonine/Jonny (Amandla Stenberg, also executive producer). A figure skater who’s just moved to town, she understands isolation.

Their unusual but immediate connection lights up in vibrant red hues, silently defying dysfunctional families, crappy boyfriends, and self-hatred. Cinematographer Bryn McCashin’s use of red dominates the film. Acting as a chromatic thermometer for Heather and Jonny’s explosive relationship, crimson neon visions are interspersed with every day, muted scenes.

Castel crafts a sensuous movie, oozing sexiness and style thanks to the natural chemistry between Menuez and Stenberg. The director focuses on unlocking Heather’s daring imagination as she grapples with her true nature and whether and how much to tell Jonny. Beautifully choreographed and inventive, the sex scenes feel organic, with one involving eggs guaranteed to make you look at that source of protein differently forever.

Courtesy of Sundance

My Animal screams queer, sensual supernatural romance

My Animal screams feral, sensual supernatural romance and could become another entry in the queer cinematic canon for young adults. (Paramount, who’s acquired the distribution rights, is clearly well aware of that.)

It’s particularly refreshing to see a father fully supporting his daughter’s desires, kicking toxic, patriarchal familial dynamics to the curb. But Heather’s queerness and butchy appearance aren’t spared by the town’s bullies nor, disappointingly, by Jonny. She may be cooler than the other kids stuck in this provincial town, but her relationship with Heather is uneven. Their rises and falls are never properly addressed or resolved. Nor the film ever reveals her backstory, except for a few strokes of solitude and her male nickname origin. 

These details give Jonny a cool girl allure, and it’s understandable why Heather would pursue her, but it feels a bit flimsy nonetheless. This may be one of the film’s biggest flaws. My Animal is so intent on fleshing out Heather that it inadvertently leaves Jonny almost inhabiting the realm of fantasy. She serves the protagonist’s narrative and evolution but never really graduates from her love interest status. This feels all the more disappointing as her background and past would have added a reflection on racial injustice and internalized homophobia to the movie.

A genre-bending story of identity

My Animal seems content to dwell in its patchy structure without ever going for a cohesive narrative, bending genres around Heather. While Jae Matthews’ script encapsulates the uneventful limbo that adolescence may feel for some, its aimlessness could be frustrating. The plot never really comes to a resolution. There may be something in the movie that speaks to the idea that bored, eager teenagehood may not give rise to the certainty that something better awaits. However, you can still find some joyful moments of truth in certain rites of passage. 

There’s a highly sensorial scene in which Heather joins Jonny and her friends at the casino. It’s a coven of outcasts being their unapologetic selves by way of acid, staggering, and giggling among shiny slot machines. But it’s a full moon, and Heather has to dash home before it’s too late. Missing curfew wouldn’t just get her grounded but risk upending lives. That urgency, paired with a sense of imminent danger, feels the closest to any teenage experience Heather will ever have, and it’s electrifying.

Nothing too gory ever really happens in the film, and if you’re watching My Animal for the pure, spine-chilling horror of werewolves stories, you won’t find much here. What you will find, instead, is a bumpy tale of self-acceptance, enriched by its lycanthropy element but, just like Heather, not defined by it.