Friday 3 January 2020

On DVD: "Animals"

Animals, the latest entry in that post-Bridesmaids, post-Fleabag cycle of works centred on so-called "messy women", is a very writerly film, and it takes some adjusting to its register. The script - by Emma Jane Unsworth, adapting her own, presumably at least semi-autobiographical novel - presents us with a couple of almost thirtysomething galpals in aspirant scribe Laura (Holliday Grainger) and abrasive American barista Tyler (Alia Shawkat), living the bohemian high life on Dublin's artsier fringes. In their own eyes, they're a veritable pair of Dorothy Parkers, spending their days lounging around and coming up with frightfully sophisticated bons mots; they might well present as aspirational figures to viewers of a similar age, or younger. To everybody else on the planet, however, they can't help but resemble overgrown students living in abject dishevelment because they haven't got anywhere else to be save another pub or club, where they drink the dregs from other people's glasses before tottering home to begin the cycle all over again. Even when this pair aren't blotto - when they're in the headachey comedown phase of this lifestyle - they tend to communicate in haughty, flowery bollocks; it's possible the pair have only become this tight because nobody else can stand to be in the same room as them for longer than five minutes. Still, stick around, for this often spectacularly boozy film eventually reveals the sediment of bitter, poignant truth. Ex vino, veritas.

For one thing, the main business of Animals - directed by the Australian import Sophie Hyde (52 Tuesdays, TV's The Hunting) - is to observe how this bond is tested. One night, Laura - who strikes the eye as just the more conservative of the two girls - locks eyes and lips with a dreamy, slightly older concert pianist (Fra Fee), and no sooner have the two boinked in an alleyway than the latter offers up the keys to his flat and a ring for Laura's finger, a shot at stability we can tell she's more than halfway tempted by. And here's where having so many writers on the books begins to pay off, as Animals pins down its theme - the overdue getting of wisdom - and sets about delineating, with considerable nuance, the loosening-up of what appears to have been a longstanding codependency. Now a late payment of rent becomes a source of tension between Laura and Tyler, and a symbol of the former's uncertainty over where in life she wants to be; yet even as she strikes out in a new and to all appearances promising direction, she finds herself backsliding under Tyler's influence, dipping into a shared Mason jar of MDMA while shopping for bridal dresses. Unsworth makes it clear she's a writer rather than a pedlar of the burlesque - the sequence doesn't have the eruptive consequences that befell Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids, say - but she has an ear for the pronounced difference between girltalk, with its knowing, arch codes, and how those girls communicate with the wider world, in which they often seem to be struggling for the right words. Not so Unsworth, long past the "coffee house idler" stage of her writing career, who keeps coming up with tart, cutting lines: clock the poet who tells Laura "I like the way you drink - it's with a real sense of mortality".

Presumably this was one of those midrange indies where funding sources dictated shooting location - Unsworth's novel unfolded around Manchester - yet Hyde makes smart, intuitive use of Dublin, with its tradition of after-hours carousing and the art that sometimes comes out of that: there's a funny ad hoc diversion involving a contemporary literary salon that is every bit as ghastly as you'd expect a contemporary literary salon to be. Yet this filmmaker is entirely serious in her study of two distinct personalities, noting where they intersect, overlap and deviate, and that they represent radically opposed yet universal instincts. (There will be male viewers who've had nights, or indeed whole years, where they've felt more of a Laura than a Tyler, or vice versa.) One of the reasons the opening stretch feels so forced is that Grainger looks too poised and alert to play the fuzzy-headed party girl - but then Animals is already well ahead of us. What the rest of the film shows us is an essentially well-meaning young woman from a nice middle-class family being led astray by a more gregarious companion; it happens. Still, in watching Laura secondguessing herself as to whether domesticity is what she really wants by way of a corrective, Hyde and Unsworth reveal the doubt lurking beneath the poise; and Grainger nails the scene where Laura looks around a bathroom flecked with vomit and fag ash, catches sight of herself in a mirror, seems to hear a clock ticking somewhere, and decides to move on, the capper to one of the most convincing portrayals of independent growth seen in recent cinema.

It's a sign of Animals' frank achievements that it impresses even with Shawkat so conspicuously reduced to a second-banana role. The movies haven't as yet served this expert comedienne as well as TV's Search Party and the otherwise middling continuation of Arrested Development have, but Tyler nevertheless stands as the most eyecatching and vivid part the movies have yet offered her: that of a faux-sophisticate who can't even say "enchanté" without putting an expletive in the middle of it. Tyler's role is to shake things up and then be cast off - the name would appear deliberate; she's something like a Tyler Durden in smudged lipstick - but Hyde and Unsworth know that such catalyst-people can be enormous fun to be around for some while, and they allow Shawkat some of the most affecting moments in the movie: wiping away a solitary tear at the bar before defaulting to her usual whisky-sour toughness, dredging up a vow the friends made years ago, but which Laura has completely forgotten about. The more it goes on, the more obvious it becomes that Animals is a film made by women who've lived through this (or something like this), and who are now sifting hazy memories of these lost weekends and wilderness years with a gimlet eye for those experiences that deserve keeping, and those best left behind. Hyde and Unsworth do audiences the favour of introducing two women who - for all that they sometimes get up one another's noses, and on each other's tits - actually, properly like one another, but they have the smarts to see they're not alike; that these party animals are finally very different creatures, set on very different tracks. That surely happens, too.

Animals is available on DVD through Picturehouse from Monday.

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