Image: Sharing their quarter-life crisis. Holliday Grainger and Alia Shawkat in Animals. Source: SFF.
There’s a lived-in texture to Sophie Hyde’s work that transcends the ordinary — the ordinary lives that her films peer into, the routine spaces that her protagonists inhabit, and the everyday situations that sit at the heart of her narratives. It was evident in 52 Tuesdays, the empathetic and sensitive drama that charted a year in a teenager’s life as her transgender parent transitioned from female to male. It also shaped Hyde’s energetic six-part TV web-series Fucking Adelaide, which filtered a family reunion in the City of Churches through the perspectives of six different relatives. And it couldn’t shine brighter in her latest feature, Animals.
As the Australian filmmaker demonstrates again and again, detail is the key, with Hyde conjuring up rich, thriving worlds that are intrinsically linked to her characters. Indeed, Animals saunters across the screen with a waning party vibe, a sea of shabby-chic décor and the intimacy of joined-to-the-hip friends who’ve long progressed from completing each other’s sentences to sharing the same thoughts — and in its whirlwind of camaraderie, chaos and existential yearning, it draws audiences into a highly specific yet universally relevant and resonant story about weathering life’s ups and downs.
Introduced as they’ve contentedly spent their last ten years — drinking, reveling and stumbling — Dublin native Laura (Holliday Grainger) and American transplant Tyler (Alia Shawkat) have frequented every bar in town, taken every substance in sight and had their way with whichever men have fallen into their paths. And, they’ve been inseparable while doing all of the above over and over again. Baristas by day, hard partygoers by night, they’re comfortable in their own version of codependence. The feistily feminist Tyler contends this is far better than committing to the opposite sex, settling down and living a quieter existence. But much to her own surprise, aspiring writer Laura realises that she has dreams that don’t involve perpetual hangovers, raucous escapades, wallowing through each day and kicking up her heels every night.
There’s the book that she’s been claiming to work on for a decade, only to pen a mere ten pages in all of that time. There’s her brand-new romance with strait-laced classical pianist Jim (Fra Fee), and the discovery that conventional coupledom has its perks. And, there’s also the news that her ex-wild child younger sister (Amy Molloy) is not only expecting, but has fallen pregnant on purpose. Alas, as Laura begins to think that she could warm to a more traditional kind of life — or, at least, a less hedonistic, careening, tumultuous type — Tyler rallies against even the idea of change, let alone evolving or farewelling their platonic romance.
Based on Emma Jane Unsworth’s 2014 novel of the same name, with the author also adapting her own material into a screenplay, Animals serves up a convincing double act. Performance-wise, the film belongs to Grainger more than Shawkat; however their characters are always two halves of the same whole — a portrait of millennial malaise that’s caught between gleefully rebelling against societal norms and wondering if there’s more to living than throwing caution to the wind. In fine-tuned portrayals, the duo bring this teetering dynamic to life, whether Laura and Tyler are drinking with near-competitive enthusiasm at their local bar, restlessly idling around their shared apartment, encouraging each other’s worst instincts in public or reluctantly confronting their differences. The quietly expressive Grainger bubbles with tenacity behind her longing stare, while the spiky Shawkat brims with confidence and abrasiveness. Together, they personify the search for authenticity that drives Animals, as well as the performative, pics-or-it-didn’t-happen, persona-as-personality attitude that’s all-too-easily adopted as a coping mechanism.
Combined with Hyde’s detail-oriented eye, it’s this probing approach that lifts the film; among cinema’s growing collection of quarter-life crises, it shares more in common with Frances Ha’s thoughtful unravelling than Trainwreck’s broad, comic lessons. That said, neither comparison quite fits Hyde’s feature, which always feels distinctive in its mood, its freewheeling visuals and pace (with credit for both to Hyde’s partner and regular collaborator, editor Bryan Mason), and its narrative. The broad strokes remain recognisable, and some of its episodic moments stay on for a beat too long; however there’s a looseness to Animals that’s all its own. Like any close friendship, Laura and Tyler’s idiosyncrasies unfurl at their own speed, eschew the ordinary, and find their own rhythm — and, taking its cues from these bickering, bantering, battling besties, so does the lively, lived-in movie that they’re in.
Director: Sophie Hyde
UK/Australia/Ireland, 2019, 109 mins
Australian Release Date: 12 September 2019
Australian Distributor: Bonsai Films
Rating: MA 15+
[This review was originally published 5 June 2019 to coincide with Animals screenings in Sydney Film Festival.]