Werewolves in horror often depict the afflicted as desperate to repress or separate themselves from their carnivorous Other self. My Animal instead correlates that Otherness with relatable emotions tied to feeling out of place within society. That angle gives a new spin on a classic monster tale, with its horror rooted more firmly in reality.
Heather (Bobbi Salvör Menuez) struggles more than most teens her age in her small Northern town. The social outcast aspires to play goalie for the local hockey team, despite the coach’s harsh preference for male players and preferential treatment toward her younger brothers. Heather’s alcoholic mother (Heidi von Palleske) wreaks havoc on her home life thanks to her volatile mood swings. Then there’s the pesky problem that requires Heather to be shackled every full moon, inherited from dad (Stephen McHattie). Then she meets town newcomer Jonny (Amandla Stenberg), a rebellious figure skater. The chemistry between the pair escalates, giving Heather a reprieve from the oppressive forces in her life. It also forces her to reckon with her inner animal.
Director Jacqueline Castel and screenwriter Jae Matthews (The Runner) keep Heather’s emotional journey at the forefront; My Animal dabbles in horror but is much more interested in Heather’s self-discovery and growing pains. And Heather’s family strife and budding relationship with Jonny more than provide enough strife and uncertainty to fuel her inner conflicts.
Salvör Menuez nails Heather’s awkwardness and brings her internal struggles to the surface. It’s bolstered by Castel’s stylistic flourishes and how the filmmaker uses red to visualize Heather’s headspace. Heather silently accepts verbal abuse or public embarrassment from her mother. She tends to retreat within herself often, unsure how or what normalcy feels like. But the horror romance’s most vital asset is the sizzling chemistry between Salvör Menuez and Stenberg. Heather and Jonny’s attraction isn’t just a spark that ignites Heather’s desire for acceptance; it’s an entire bonfire.
Those hoping for a more conventional werewolf horror movie won’t find it here. The werewolf element informs everything about Heather and her life, but there’s a fascinating restraint in how Castel approaches it. My Animal posits that lycanthropy, like Heather’s sexuality, is inexorably linked to her human side. It’s the only part of Heather that feels entirely her own, save her connection with Jonny. Keeping that aspect of Heather so purposefully vague in mythology dampens the impact of her self-discovery, especially in the underdeveloped familial relationships that shape her entire identity. The evolutions within Heather can be almost too imperceptible until the third act. There’s a feeling that we never really knew Heather by the end, but then again, the point is arguable that neither did she.
My Animal defies easy categorization. The genre-bender combines horror, romance, and a strong emphasis on drama, culminating in a stylish, fascinating coming-of-age story. It operates on mood and emotion, using the werewolf mythos as a metaphor for Heather’s budding sexuality. That it’s unconventional means investment depends on how successfully Salvör Menuez, Stenberg, and Castel can draw you into this emotionally charged and occasionally bloody character study. It may not wow on the werewolf front, but My Animal’s ability to retool many of its classic tropes in a reality-based, contemporary way is commendable.
My Animal made its World Premiere at the Sundance Film Festival and will be released by Paramount in 2023.