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My Best Friend's Meddling

Animals-movie-review-holliday-grainger-alia-shawkat
Tamara Hardman/2019 Sundance Film Festival

MOVIE REVIEW
Animals (2019)

The process of how someone puts their career together is endlessly fascinating. How someone chooses their work and builds the life they want will never not be interesting in a film. And if the hero/ine of that story has a best friend? Jackpot. When lives entwine in crowded homes and clothes are shared along with every thought, things can get very interesting: whether in making art (“Frances Ha”), murdering an inconvenient parent (“Heavenly Creatures”) or getting overinvested in each other’s love lives (“Me Without You”). “Animals” does all of those things except for the murder. What it doesn’t do is give the friendship equal weight on both sides, which is its second-biggest weakness.

Its first biggest weakness is the lack of sense of place. It was filmed in Dublin and its suburbs, but its Irishness is only in the characters’ accents ⁠— or lack of them. Probably this is because director Sophie Hyde normally works in Australia, and screenwriter Emma Jane Unsworth adapted her own novel, which was set in Manchester, England, but it’s a major flaw. There’s no sense of place, and no sense of how Laura (Holliday Grainger, whose Dubs accent is flawless) and Tyler (Alia Shawkat) can afford their utterly stunning apartment.

Jobs are mentioned, but aren’t shown, because Tyler and Laura don’t care about them. Their lives are drugs and partying and going out, and that is exactly how they like it. They’re 30ish and see no reason to change; the conventionality of the suburbs and all that entails is not for them. This is the very rare movie where a life of all-nighters, smeary eyeliner, broken lamps and the occasional vomiting on the carpet is taken at face value. The women are not punished by the world for living large, and the audience doesn't feel it has to worry about them. For this alone “Animals” is to be cherished.

But Laura’s more than a mere party girl. You guessed it: She wants to be a writer. She has been working on a novel, “about ten pages,” for a decade, but is too busy having a good time with Tyler to write anything down properly. Then she meets Jim (Fra Fee) in her local, which is an unusual place for him to be; he is a classical pianist very serious about his career. But he’s enchanted by Laura, and not only due to her willingness to flash a tit while he’s taking his bows after a concert. But the ease with which he’s able to integrate his musical work with the rest of his life gets her thinking.

There are only so many shots of Ms. Grainger thoughtfully scribbling in a diary that a person can take, but at least we get to see her doing something. With the exception of two brief scenes, Tyler’s life rotates around Laura. This is unfair, not least because Ms. Shawkat is an exceptional actress (and with freckles!). The glimpses of Tyler’s life that we do see are exceptional, too. She casually robs drug dealers of their stash on foot without repercussion. She’s an American, but we never learn how she ended up in Dublin, although we do get an idea as to why, or even if she’s there legally. She spends all her time and energy believing in Laura and wanting to be with her. Jim goes so far as to call her Laura’s wife, although there’s no hint of lesbianism. Laura’s family have even folded Tyler into their lives as if she was a third daughter; she automatically joins every family dinner. There’s a single, very funny scene that strongly implies that the girls used to be a trio with Laura’s sister Jean (Amy Molloy) before her marriage to Julian (Kwaku Fortune).

But these little snippets are only that; the film’s explicit focus is Laura’s self-realization. Ms. Grainger, whose riotous depiction of a preoccupied yet committed lush is unusual onscreen, more than nails it. The closest counterpart for her anarchic, iron-willed energy that this reviewer can think of is Lori Petty in “Tank Girl.” Laura’s partying is still just on the right side of trouble. When she thinks another couple bumps or shots will sort her out, they pretty much do. Well, until they don’t. There’s an attention-grabbing scene involving a baby named Shirley (in this day and age, good lord) after which Laura starts to consider. There’s a handsome poet named Marty (Dermot Murphy) who lives in a flat full of taxidermied metaphors and has excellent cocaine. There’s Jim, with his bewildered smile and bottomless sex. But there’s always Tyler, with another quick remark and another martini. The thrift-shop clothes they share — take a bow, costume designer Renate Henschke — are a major, yet uncommented-on, part of their wildness. Yes, even the fake fur coats. Their clothes are the cleverest part of the film; just look at the poster.

But this is Laura’s world, and Tyler only lives in it. This one-sidedness hamstrings the plot, and is a major reason the pacing begins to drag halfway through. A decisive moment for Laura in regards to Tyler just . . . fizzles out? There’s no argument about it, no explanation of Laura’s choice — time just slides by. That might be realistic but this is a movie. By the end we know exactly where Laura stands as regards to Marty, Jim and her entire family, so the lack of resolution with Tyler is a shocking omission. It’s also worse since neither Tyler’s nor Julian’s ethnicities are ever commented on. They are the only two adult characters of color in the whole movie, part of Laura’s family, and still not fully fleshed-out parts of Laura’s story. A drug dealer named Chicken Sandwich (Anthony Morris) gets more to do in a single minute of screen time than Julian does in the whole film. It’s not a good look.

But Ms. Hyde and Ms. Unsworth don’t know Ireland well enough to understand Irish culture and its insularity. They don’t know how small Dublin is and how its bourgeois-bohemian cohort is even smaller. It doesn’t understand how Dublin absorbs its foreigners, but only up to a point, and how no one in Dublin can afford flats like those on artists’ wages. And it doesn’t understand that a woman with a loving family, supportive boyfriend, career ambition and gargantuan appetites is not as interesting as her feisty immigrant friend who has made the same wild choices without any safety net at all.

One of two things should happen to “Animals.” Either it should be reshot from Tyler’s point of view, or it should be reshot with Ms. Grainger and Ms. Shawkat swapping parts. The story of an Iraqi-Irish girl and her supportive white American friend painting the town is not one we’ve seen before.

Does any of this make “Animals” a bad movie? No. It’s a pretty good film about how your choices always catch up with you. But with a little more specificity about the who and the where, we would have really fallen in love with the what and the why.

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