Hidden among this summer’s comic book blockbusters and testosterone-fuelled action movies is Animals, an intimate film about female friendship that avoids the typical clichés in its exploration of what it means to grow up without submitting to society’s expectations.
Based on the 2014 novel by Emma Jane Unsworth, she describes how Animals “is a lot to do with questioning our desires and our physicality,” which as women we’re encouraged to down play, but the film’s not only about lust, it’s also an examination of love in its romantic and platonic forms.
“The main thing I was trying to do was explore how to put friendship right up there with romantic love and to show how a friendship could be romantic, and how to show it could be durable, and as significant in your life as any love affair,” says Emma who also wrote the screenplay.
The film received rave reviews when it was shown at Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and has been lauded by the likes of Girls creator Lena Dunham and feminist doyenne Caitlin Moran.
Although the book’s set in Manchester, the film was shot in Dublin, where the wintry setting makes you yearn for woolly jumpers, crackling fires and a glass of red, however you’re in for a shock if you’re expecting twee.
This film is rather beautiful as it wallows in the seduction of a lifestyle free from constraint, but it doesn’t shy away from the stark and grubby moments.
There’s sex, drugs, vats of white wine, laughter, arguments, dancing and grim mornings after.
We’re introduced to the two women at the centre of the story, flatmates Laura and Tyler, in an opening montage of drunken nights out and hangovers as they describe in voiceover how they first met.
It seems a little forced – the only part of the film that does – but it serves to demonstrate the co-dependent nature of their decade-long friendship.
Alia Shawkat is excellent as Tyler, the gregarious American who tolerates her mundane work pattern as simply a means to fund their debauched nights out, but it’s Holliday Grainger’s film. We often see her in period films, but she’s flung her corset away for this contemporary piece, and shines as Dublin-born Laura, the frustrated writer who’s been tinkering away at her novel for 10 years. When asked what’s it about, she quips “10 pages”.
Their friendship is freeing and stifling in equal measure, and as they embark on their thirties, the party seems never-ending, until Laura discovers her younger sister is pregnant, and not by accident.
If her younger sister is making grown-up choices, then shouldn’t Laura be doing the same? Within hours she’s introducing herself to Jim (Fra Fee), a pianist with a penchant for sensible shirts and shiny shoes, and a swift engagement ensues.
Tyler’s not happy about her best mate’s whirlwind romance, but not because she’s envious, as the single best friend is typically depicted on screen. She genuinely wants to question Laura’s reasons for wanting to rush into marriage, however cynical it may seem.
As time passes, Laura becomes unsure of her own motives too, especially when she meets a poet called Marty (Dermot Murphy) who provides a welcome distraction, even if he does host salons and displays taxidermy in his apartment.
As the film plays out, there’s a growing sense that the familiar routine is getting old, but the movie doesn’t set out to suggest that just because you no longer want to party all night, you need to automatically buy into the traditional dream of house, husband and kids. And if you do, as Laura’s sister does, it doesn’t automatically equate to unadulterated contentment.
“Emma’s voice is about women in the world who are unapologetic about who they are, but that doesn’t mean that it’s all celebration. She offers us up these characters who we love and want to party with and want to enjoy,” comments director and producer Sophie Hyde.
“She criticises them at times, and she embraces them at times, and she really offers up that there isn’t an easy answer to things.”
This isn’t a story about ticking off life’s to-do list, but it does explore the pressure to feel like you need to. It’s messy and meandering, wonderfully written and acted and many women will relate to its droll observations.
We might all have to grow-up, but as this film serves to remind us, that shouldn’t translate as submitting to suburbia, but having the self-belief to discover what that means to you.
Animals is released on Friday, August 2
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