Hedonist besties Laura and Tyler (Holliday Grainger and Alia Shawkat) live to party. An inseparable double act, the girls spend their nights – and when possible, mornings and afternoons – boozing and snorting their way through the latter half of their 20s.
A seedy, punk-rock energy is evident from moment one of Animals. In a pre-credit dialogue, Tyler and Laura reminisce about meeting-cute and the time Tyler hijacked a Luas. A rapid-fire title sequence next jumps us around a typical night of over-indulgence, all backed-up by the accompaniment of one of Peaches’ striptease soundtracks.
Apart from the immediacy of the film’s stylishness, there’s another feature of Animals that grabs attention from the off: Grainger’s attempt at a Dublin accent. It’s not good unfortunately, detracting from what is otherwise a lively and heartfelt performance. It’s a credit to the filmmakers then that something that sounds so off at first basically fades away as we get caught up in the narrative and the ups and downs of Laura and Tyler’s friendship.
Shawkat’s Tyler has a lot to do with our overall enjoyment of Animals. Shawkat is great in everything she does. She carried the last season of Arrested Development. Some of Shawkat’s real-life star quality finds its way into Tyler, her quick-draw delivery and wit suggests a long-lost screwball starlet.
When she’s not partying, Laura is trying to be a writer. The emphasis here is on trying. It’s quickly revealed that Laura’s novel is about 10 pages long and has been in the works for just as many years.
The film’s director, Sophie Hyde, really gets the frustration of the blank page and the difficulty that lies in trying to put pen to paper or finger to keyboard. Many times we see Laura busily scribbling down a note or idea only to cross it out. At various points in the film she sits at an ancient plastic MacBook, its blinking cursor taunting her until she slams the lid shut.
Tyler is Laura’s biggest champion, and seems to be something of a muse to her friend as well. Tyler seems to know that art is hard, and bigs-up Laura’s ability at every opportunity.
In the early stages of the film we are given a sense of the girls closeness through short flashbacks and knowing looks of understanding. Grainger and Shawkat play well off of one another. Initially, it seems as though we’re going to spending a lot of time with them – hanging out and messing around – but conflict enters the story early in the first act and moves the film in a different direction.
There’s a thread of people enabling Laura throughout the film. Tyler, as her BFF and housemate, enables Laura to goof off and live the fantasy of the sot creative. When Laura meets and falls for Jim (Fra Fee), a dedicated pianist who drinks far less than Laura or Tyler, he enables her go after a normie existence. Jim is supportive of Laura’s writing but encourages her to pursue them away from Tyler.
Laura’s divided attention, and later, her engagement to Jim, distances her from Tyler, who does not believe in marriage or any of the other trappings of a suburban existence.
In a twist on the hard-living comedy formula, Animals doesn’t make Laura change her ways to win Jim over. He’s already charmed by her – boozing and all. Usually, these sorts of narratives move toward the main character “shaping up” to win over a love interest. Laura does eventually have to face up to her lifestyle choices, but refreshingly, it’s not all for the love of Jim.
When Laura talks about her novel, she says it’s about a girl that saves a spider from being trapped in its own web. There’s a pleasant ambiguity to this. Who’s the spider? Who’s the girl? What’s the web? Did Laura save Tyler or was it the other way around? Are they both now free of constraint, or, is the web the friendship that makes both girls think less of one another as time goes on? Viewers will have their own feelings on these questions.
To me, Laura and Tyler were both caught up in a web of complacency. Not realising that their lives were essentially at a standstill.
The film’s lasting conflict comes from what these friends expect from each other. Tyler is let down by Laura’s writing again and again. Laura refuses to share her work at a salon hosted by Marty (Dermot Murphy), offering instead a quote from Yeats. Tyler wants nothing more than to be proven right about Laura’s ability but is constantly running up against Laura’s writer’s block.
Laura expects the same support from Tyler in every aspect of her life but doesn’t get it. When things fall apart, harsh words mask a palpable sense of disappointment from both actresses. Though, again, there are scenes, and one exchange between Jim and Laura in particular, when Grainger’s accent undermines the emotion just a little. Curious moviegoers can compare and contrast Grainger’s voice in Tell It to the Bees, which is out now.
Hyde is canny in shooting more and more scenes in daylight as the film progresses. With Laura’s change of perspective comes a change of tone. Somewhere along the way the orange glow of Dublin at night becomes hellish for Laura.
The film is a tribute to experience, those things in our past and present that made us and shape our future selves. It’s all too easy to look back on moments in time with regret, those shoulda, woulda, couldas that replay late at night or waste water in the shower. Animals is full of those moments. They make the Laura we see at the close of the film. That Laura is made up of her experiences, experiences that we’ve shared.
Cinematic set-up and pay-off doesn’t usually hit this hard, but rarely is the solving of a mystery or the diffusing of a Doomsday device more than fiction. In Animals, the pay-off – growing up as we grow up – is so relatable that it feels, for a time, like we’re all living the same life.
Animals is on general release from 9 August.