Words b Hiba Akmal
'Animals' directed by Sophie Hyde: surely not another movie treading the well-worn tracks of badly behaved women, whose tenure in hedonism is disrupted, tested, and then corrected by the arrival of the smouldering and well put-together man? Well. Yes…and No. Here, Mr. Tall, Dark and Handsome is not prince charming heralding happily ever after, but an introspective fly on the wall of the central character arc. There is no didactic revelation that locates success in the arms of a man behind the slats of a suburban picket fence. Rather, as Laura discovers, success is found when holding on to your own tenacious spirit and heeding wherever it may ask you to go…
Our Screen Queens for this review are Dublin besties Laura and Tyler who have partied through their twenties with a commitment that borders on the religious. Theirs is a way of life that rails against a system to which they shall never cede, a system in which marriage is the “failure of imagination” and total anarchy: their method of resistance. Sustained by cocaine and crushed paracetamol bitters, they are the self-styled avant garde artists of their generation, commandeering the underground circles that toy with ideas too experimental for daytime Dublin to handle.
Joint in this endeavour, they are two parts of a whole. A chaotic and inseparable duo played by Alia Shawkat as Tyler and Holliday Grainger as Laura. The two share an electric chemistry that ricochets across the screen, making you believe that they have practically been born into this life. It is only now, just as they approach their dirty-thirties and life begins to change once again, that the cameras have rolled in.
So it’s all the more interesting that director Sophie Hyde did not screen the cast for chemistry tests. She said it was an “easy choice” on account of their past work and a natural resonance with the roles. Shawkat is most known for her recurring role as Maeby Fünke on the hit series Arrested Development. Prior to Animals, she wrote and co-starred in Duck Butter - an indie chamber drama spanning twenty-four hours with two female lovers as they cuddle, talk and copulate, mostly on the same couch.
As Tyler in Animals, Shawkat is brash and irreverent. Her give-no-fucks, shit-on-society attitude stems in part from her natural outlandishness but also, the cynicism of a vaguely referenced family trauma - the greatest backdrop to her character we are given. She speaks almost entirely in prose, and whilst for most this would be hard to pull off without a thick smear of pomposity, Shawkat makes a natural - albeit theatrical - expression of Tyler’s underlying verve.
Our Screen Queen No. 2 is Laura. She is a writer, an aspiring novelist, but one struggling with a deeply wedged creative block. In fact, over the past ten years, she has completed a total of ten pages of said novel - despite the lifestyle that she and Tyler have gone to such lengths to cultivate. This is a thorn always niggling at her side, gnawing at her consciousness and sense of self. So, when Laura’s sister (an ex-party girl that taught the party-girls how to party) announces her *gasp* planned pregnancy and graduation into marital motherhood, this nascent fear erupts into a fully-fledged identity crisis. Could it be that this tirade on the margins of society is really just a sloppy avoidance of adulthood?
SO of course when Laura sees Jim at the bar she is immediately besotted. Jim the sexy, disciplined pianist who wakes up at 5.00 am every day to master his craft. Jim who has his sh*t together! Jim who is also, and here’s the BUT...a Teetotaller.
**Teetotaler: Scottish for someone who doesn’t drink. Somewhat of a social slur reserved for the weirdos who decline the national pastime.
Their romance brings the core questions of the film into play. Can friendships withstand such change, or do they snap and break? Must we eventually trade in our youthful hedonism for stability and success? Can art only occur in turbulence and at the margins, or should it be cultivated through order, discipline and commitment?
Unsurprisingly Tyler is not about Jim who presents a serious threat to their way of life and Laura’s seeming acquiescence to the “urban order” is a betrayal that cuts deep. As Laura adopts a new ‘creative regimen’ - curbing the alcohol intake, trading late nights for early mornings - their friendship hangs in an existential balance.
But the truth is that Jim’s high-society, wanky-swanky, polished orchestral buddies and hang-outs (ahem, recitals) couldn’t be further from Laura’s late-night, cocaine-fuelled underground benders. Forcing herself into this world is not fixing her problems. Jim is NOT the antidote.
It takes the near prophetic overlap of social commitments from her increasingly opposed worlds for Laura to realize this. Tyler’s birthday bash is the night before Jim’s scholarship awarding recital. It’s simple. Go to Tyler’s, don’t get too wasted, come home, get some zzz’s and get ready in time for Jim’s brunch-time performance. Easy.
But once at Tyler’s, Laura is torn between her familiar landscape and the one for which she must depart. She delays this departure from 12am to 3am. Then it’s 9am the next day. Plan A is abandoned all together. Laura goes straight from one venue to another. One final hit for the road! The outcome is as you would expect: the tensions that have been throttling away inside her finally explode all over the recital, Jim, and its attending polite society. It’s not a pretty sight.
But that cathartic hurl brings us back to Laura in the taxi-cab. Her head hangs out of the window, inhaling the night air of her surroundings, grounding herself in the now. Somehow she has found some peace.
Laura has released herself from Jim having realized his method of self-salvation needn’t be hers. What is refreshing about Animals is its general disinterest in the whole ascribing normative judgements thing. It just wasn’t meant to be. There is no one formula to art and creativity, just as there is no one formula to friendship and self-realization.
That unease that had been gnawing away at Laura from the first scene has visibly lifted and in its place, a calm determinism has settled. She’s back to her nocturnal schedule, and once at home, uncorks a bottle of red, faces a blank word document and begins to write.