Film

Despite some missed opportunities in its storytelling, Animals is sustained by riveting performances from its two leads, and by Sophie Hyde’s generosity as a director. By Christos Tsiolkas.

Sophie Hyde’s Animals

Holliday Grainger (left) and Alia Shawkat in Animals.
Credit: Bernard Walsh

Australian director Sophie Hyde has formidable verve and perspicacity as a filmmaker. Her first feature film, 52 Tuesdays, released in 2014, made an aesthetic virtue of its lo-fi guerilla filmmaking – the deliberate roughness and limited locations lending visceral authenticity to a story of a family dealing with their mother’s transitioning to male. That film was anchored by the tenderness and generosity with which the director supported her cast, qualities that were also clear in Hyde’s early short work, and in her punchy satirical mini-series Fucking Adelaide. Her new film, Animals, is a tough and caustic romantic comedy, but one in which a platonic friendship between two women is the dramatic centre of the love story, and it too is anchored by the care and freedom Hyde offers her actors.

Holliday Grainger is Laura and Alia Shawkat is Tyler, two young women on the cusp of being 30 who are flatmates in Dublin, and who have been best friends for a decade. They are both unabashedly committed to hedonism – to getting drunk, taking drugs and partying hard, and to exploring their sexual desires in a series of casual and anonymous hook-ups. They support themselves by working as baristas, though there is the hint that Laura’s stolidly middle-class family might also be partly funding their lifestyle. One night, at a family dinner that both women attend, Laura’s sister announces she is pregnant. That moment, when a woman who was once an ally in their partying stakes a claim for domesticity, precipitates a slow-burning change in the relationship between the best friends.

Soon after, getting drunk at a bar, Tyler heads off to the toilets with a man she has just met and Laura strikes up a conversation with Jim, a handsome young piano player played by Fra Fee. We will discover he is a pianist of talent and keen dedication. Grainger and Fee play that initial flirtatious encounter beautifully, and Hyde’s shots of the pair are luminous. We understand the force of their erotic attraction but we also glimpse that for Laura, who has dreams of being a writer, part of the attraction is Jim’s clear-headed diligence to his craft. When Tyler emerges from the basement toilets, there is a terse, combative exchange between her and Jim. She sums him up and immediately knows he’s a threat to her relationship with Laura.

Animals is at its acerbic best when examining the love these two women have for each other. Hyde and scriptwriter Emma Jane Unsworth’s take on the characters’ intemperance is delightfully agnostic, never condemning their self-indulgences but also unafraid to keep a critical distance from their behaviour. One of the film’s most powerful and affecting sequences occurs over the night and morning of Tyler’s 30th birthday, capturing the euphoria of drug-fuelled revelry as well as the desperation and self-loathing that is the comedown. The feminism implicit in this study of female platonic friendship is sex-positive, but it isn’t naive. The filmmakers and the actors aren’t afraid to show us unsympathetic and obnoxious aspects to the women’s behaviour. With the “buddy film” having happily celebrated the antics of infantile men for decades, there’s a real defiance and daring in allowing Laura and Tyler to actively refuse to grow up.

But Animals isn’t a rehash of gender-switching buddy comedies such as Bridesmaids. It also explores the consequences on friendship when one partner starts to reassess her choices and the direction of her life. Throughout the film, Hyde cuts to images of cats, or to a shot of an urban fox foraging for food. In both instances, they are animals defined by self-possession. The question that drives the narrative urgency of the film is: what about the animal that also desires security and community?

As Laura decides to finally act on her desire to be a writer, it is Jim’s passionate investment in his art and craft that seals her attachment to him, while Tyler’s jealousy of this bond begins to affect the insularity of the women’s friendship. Unfortunately, when it comes to exploring questions of possessiveness and freedom and how they affect our friendships, the script shies away from forensically dealing with the potency and challenges of the situation.

Unsworth’s screenplay is adapted from her novel of the same name, and she might have believed that Laura’s creative aspirations have biographical veracity. But we are never fully convinced of Laura’s drive to be an artist, and the scenes in which she explores the labour of writing seem forced and romanticised. In a film that depends so much on the verisimilitude of small gestures, and on discreet moments of solitude and intimacy, this is a real handicap. We become increasingly aware of unanswered questions about the friendship. Tyler is an American in Dublin, estranged from her family, but the class and cultural differences between her and Laura are only alluded to and never dealt with seriously. The tensions of finances and money that can so often blight the friendship of people who live together are largely ignored, as is any suggestion that Tyler’s jealousy might be as much about Laura’s artistic aspirations as it might be about her burgeoning relationship with Jim. The director and writer refuse to go hard as the drama escalates, and never capture the sourness, bitterness and emotional violence that are central to a fracturing and deteriorating friendship. That’s a great unexplored subject in cinema and I found myself disappointed that Animals retreated from such ferocity.

Jim’s character, and that of Marty (Dermot Murphy), a poet Laura becomes attracted to, are also too thinly drawn. Just as the film shies away from the grubbiness of the damage we do to each other as friends when our choices start to differ, Animals ignores the envy and ego involved in relationships between artists. Late in the film’s denouement, there’s a choice about Jim that I wish had not occurred. It felt like a cop-out, evading the much more serious conflict in Laura and Jim’s relationship to do with their differing fidelity to their art. There’s a discordant tension in the script, between wanting to be urgent and messy and faithful to the complexity of human entanglements, and yet wanting to maintain a breezy lightness throughout. This hedging of bets means that Animals doesn’t quite satisfy as romantic comedy and it never gives us the catharsis of raw emotional honesty. I came away hungry, wanting more.

Yet it’s a highly enjoyable film. Grainger is almost ruthless in her immersion in the role, and her performance is a standout. Laura’s tentativeness, her curiosity, her fear, her bravado and her confusion are all skilfully conveyed. Tyler is a more enigmatic character, and her role is underwritten, and so one can see Shawkat struggling at times to inhabit the part. But she’s a riveting presence and doesn’t recoil from her character’s unlikeability. Tyler is a bullshit artist but she’s brave and gutsy and we are in no doubt about why her friendship is so important to Laura. That’s the chief joy of Animals, Hyde’s respect for and loyalty to her cast, and so even when we are suspicious of the evasions and shortcomings of the screenplay, we are captivated by the actors.

Hyde’s work in this film is confident and always dynamic. Animals is a low-budget film but the lighting and the cinematography have a sensuous crispness, and cinematographer Bryan Mason does a lovely job of capturing the narcotic gaze of both day and night, of how the world looks when we are loaded on drink and drugs.

Animals is Hyde’s second feature film and it’s possible that some of the ambiguity of purpose that mars the drama comes from her own questioning of what she wants to do next as a filmmaker. She is expert at portraying the language and poses and affectations of contemporary young people, as well as their earnestness and their hopefulness. I was charmed and moved by 52 Tuesdays, but Animals is formally a much more assured and controlled work. Hyde keeps honing her craft as a director and as a producer: her heart is with Laura but her dedication is Jim’s. When she is playing at her best, I am completely entranced.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 21, 2019 as "Redeeming creatures". Subscribe here.

Christos Tsiolkas
is the author of The Slap and Barracuda. He is The Saturday Paper’s film critic.