My Animal is a story about werewolves. About werewolves or containing werewolves? This is one of the first things we should clarify. Yes, werewolves are present, and the film doesn't shy away from them. However, worry not: this is a movie that will be relatable to anyone, even if they have very little interest in wolf-human hybrids. It is the emotional and dramatic elements that are primarily explored, at the cost of the horror, which may end up disappointing some.
The story follows Heather (Bobbi Salvör Menuez), a woman who already knows what she is; or, rather, part of what she is. She knows she was born different – into a family of werewolves – and she knows that certain rules must be followed to avoid unpleasant, *ahem,* surprises. However, things change when Heather meets and immediately becomes attracted to Jonny (Amandla Stenberg), a figure skater who has moved to the quiet town where she lives. As Heather's desires grow, her actions become increasingly uncontrollable, raising the probability of the monster within being unleashed.
It would be difficult for a horror purist to call My Animal a horror film. It's not a movie that will terrify teenagers. It won't leave anyone anxious about turning off the lights in their room before going to sleep. You won't see blood and death every five minutes. That was never the intention, though. The way that Jacqueline Castel handles the story is quite unique. Thematically, it is about self-discovery and the journey to acceptance. The script is clever in how it presents key events in adolescence: bodily changes, sexual desires, first love, rejection, euphoria, and acceptance of who we are. We are all different and we should accept even that which we don't understand about ourselves.
The film is very restrained, evident in its choice of location: a small, remote town. Castel also makes the decision to exclude cell phones, creating a well-constructed sense of isolation that perfectly suits its characters and main stories. The somber mood is enhanced by aesthetic aspects, like the '80s synthesizers on its soundtrack and its dark, red-toned color palette, fortifying the dreamy atmosphere.
Last year, the trendy blend of romance and horror gave us Luca Guadagnino’s highly recommended Bones & All. The two would make a fitting double feature – they share many similarities not only in genre but also in themes, mood, and pacing. Like Bones & All, My Animal is one of those films where you might have to judge your audience before recommending it. Nevertheless, there are some preceding films that can help viewers understand what to expect. Julia Ducournau’s Raw, Brian de Palma’s Carrie, or John Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps are good references, but it wouldn't shock me if someone mentioned something in the vein of Blue is the Warmest Colour or series like True Blood or Roswell.
For some audience members, My Animal will be another one of those sluggish, artsy films where nothing much happens. For others, it's a smartly crafted slow-burn that always has a lot to say between the lines, with much of its success attributed to the lead duo. Heather and Jonny are two fully developed characters. They are very different – the physical constraints of one character are complemented by the mental constraints of another – but it's easy to understand their behavior, even when they act foolishly. After all, they are teenagers. Bobbi Salvör Menuez’s portrayal of Heather as a teenager burdened with responsibilities but starting to think more with her heart than her head is impeccable. Amandla Stenberg's portrayal of Jonny is equally impressive, considering the difficult character's difficult arc.
One thing I will never accept is the notion that queer stories are exclusively for gays or lesbians. That would pigeonhole the film into a narrower category than what it conveys. I have no doubt that queer people may have an extra interest and fascination with it; after all, prejudices in this world are so pervasive that even werewolf families can be homophobic. However, I am a straight man identifying quite strongly with both the werewolf story and its allegory – the themes are universal.
My Animal will prove to be polarizing for many mainstream horror fans looking for a classic werewolf story. However, to quote Jim Jarmusch's opinion on this film, "This is deftly crafted storytelling, visually entrancing, and without any of the cliches of caricature, predictable drama, or calculated 'action.'"
So go in with an open mind and embrace the spirit. It certainly handles its coming-of-age aspect better than its horror elements, but its primary goal is to serve as a metaphor for adolescent woes that are relatable to anyone. The immersive soundtrack won't soon leave my mind, and the trance-like atmosphere of its central town created a world I was not eager to leave. Still, the soul of My Animal lies in its two magnificent performances and the chemistry they bring to each scene.
My Animal is playing in select theaters in the U.S.