A hyperstylized werewolf movie that manages to pump fresh blood through the veins of the queer coming-of-age genre, My Animal is a delectably atmospheric feature debut.
My Animal, which premiered at Sundance last month, strikes a balance between horror and romance, with director Jacqueline Castel treating the two as inextricable for the lustful teenager at its center.
Set in the dead of winter in the ‘80s, around a rural snowbound town in northern Canada, My Animal introduces protagonist Heather (Bobbi Salvör Menuez) at home, lit by the blue glow of a television screen, as the stroke of midnight on the occasion of a full moon triggers her lycanthropic transformation. Though her parents are aware of Heather’s condition and do their best to keep her restrained at home on nights such as these, even installing chains and cuffs in her childhood bedroom, teenagedom has brought with it a new taste for rebellion.
Kept on the outskirts of her hometown, Heather works at the local ice rink, where she hopes to eventually try out for a goalie position on the all-boys hockey team. One day, she spots the gorgeous Jonny (Amandla Stenberg) practicing her figure-skating routine on the ice and experiences deeper longing for the first time. (Though, refreshingly, Heather’s stash of female pro wrestling posters and videotapes makes it clear she’s already very much in touch with her sexual identity.) Compelled to approach Jonny and exhilarated by the hungry looks she receives in return, Heather lets her inchoate feelings overwhelms her common sense — a risky decision, though not one she regrets.
The script (by first-time feature writer Jae Matthews, of electronic duo Boy Harsher) emphasizes Heather’s blossoming relationship with Jonny, and the rush of emotions it unlocks, over her moonlighting habits, much in the way any teenager’s first love pushes everything else to the periphery. Though Heather’s lycanthropy inevitably re-emerges, it’s easy to invest in My Animal as a character-focused piece about alienated people coming to terms with themselves and one another.
Among her generation’s most serenely assured screen presences, Stenberg smartly pitches her performance between fantasy and reality, presenting the girl of Heather’s dreams before revealing Jonny’s more quietly conflicted truth. But the film belongs to Menuez, who slips easily into Heather’s outsider skin while letting us see the wounded need burning beneath it. Their chemistry is instant and electric: tender as the two huddle close together against the winter chill, ravenous as they take turns making out against a neon-lit bar jukebox.
An accomplished short and music video director who’s collaborated with John Carpenter and David Lynch, Castel uses a clever combination of low-budget techniques, letting the sound mixing do the heavy lifting as she works in strobe-like flashes of horror imagery and GoPro-style footage of wolves running wild. Castel co-edited My Animal with repeat Gaspar Noé collaborator Marc Boutrot, and its more hallucinogenic sequences employ a hazy, heated rhythm that heightens the sense of characters moving on impulse and instinct, rather than considered logic.
Aesthetically channeling the synth-steeped ambience of ’80s music videos, My Animal is especially awash in pulsing red hues, from full blood moons and car tail lights to the gradually rosier shade of Jonny’s hair extensions. Rather than emptily stylizing the romance, the color grading conveys its intensifying allure and danger, visualizing the depths of Heather’s passion in a way that amplifies the film’s subjectivity, its vivid and tactile expression of Heather’s internal struggle.
Red-lit sequences of otherworldly seduction also free Castel and her collaborators up to deliver more conscious homages, though their selections surprise and delight. A dreamy “egg yolk” exchange trades in Tampopo’s amusingly kinky consumer-culture satire for embryonic queer symbolism. Later, a sensuous bedroom scene sees the characters’ surroundings fall away until they’re adrift in space, their shared retreat into a sexually liberated subconscious most strongly evoking Lucio Fulci’s A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, itself a vintage phantasmagoria of erotic compulsions bleeding into reality.
Even the film’s opening scene finds Heather watching the “Beauty and the Beast” episode of Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre, a period-appropriate choice but also the kind of deep cut that suggests the filmmakers’ willingness to riff openly, and indulgently, upon their influences.
Matthews met Boy Harsher bandmate August Muller in film school, and the duo’s cinematic sensibilities — most heavily indebted to John Carpenter — suffuse every thrumming beat of the darkwave music they make. A natural fit for the visual aesthetics of My Animal, the synth-driven compositions, credited to Muller, keep the film grounded in a retro genre space through its more conventionally paced middle hour. Even there, though, dramatically lit scenes of small town life, especially in sequences at Heather’s house, add to the sense of forbidding darkness. One standout moment sees Heather and Jonny caught sneaking around in the family kitchen one night by Heather’s mother, whose resentment and suspicion swells to fill the space, cornering the teenagers and emphasizing the risk that underlies their relationship.
As Heather’s story more than Jonny’s, My Animal is commendably sensitive in its depiction of her home life, which involves extensively padlocked doors and the use of heavy chains and shackles to restrain her to her childhood bed. Heather inherited lycanthropy from her werewolf father, Henry (Stephen McHattie), whose air of resignation permeates the ice-cold family home and whose relationship with Heather’s human mother, Patti (Heidi von Palleske), has been particularly strained since Heather started transforming. The collateral damage of their condition is most in evidence during scenes that depict Patti’s alcoholism; that Heather will always be more like her father has riddled Patti with a brutally transformative condition of her own.
My Animal stumbles slightly in its final third, adding one plot twist too many in a way that leads into a too-abrupt conclusion. But this is an accomplished feature debut by Castel and Matthews, and the core performances of My Animal ground its immensely pleasurable aesthetics in a volatile romantic heat that’s just as beguiling.
My Animal premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. It has been acquired by Paramount, which plans a release this summer.