A solemn tale of longing, loneliness and werewolves haunted this year’s Sundance Film Festival as My Animal, Jacqueline Castel’s feature debut, hit the screen.
The story is set in an unnamed northern town in the United States that’s near enough to the Canadian border to feature a Nutty Club product placement (despite the fictional setting, it was filmed in Timmins, Ont.). It’s a sleepy, uneventful locale for young goaltender and arena concession worker Heather (Bobbi Salv.r Menuez) to wile away her post-collegiate existence.
She plays hockey with her little brothers and accosts the local men’s beer-league coach to give her a tryout. That’s when she’s not balancing her gruff but wise father (Stephen McHattie) and her unstable alcoholic mother (Heidi von Palleske), along with the curse of the full moon.
When Heather meets Jonine (Amandla Stenberg), a figure skater at the arena, she’s thrown for a loop. Her parents don’t want her out past curfew, but not for the usual reasons. How does one balance love and lycanthropy, anyway?
Young-adult romance, small town-ennui and werewolf hysteria all jockey for space in this 103-minute thematically ambitious thriller. But what does it all mean? And more importantly, how does it feel?
This is a demure picture, perhaps meant to emulate the protagonist’s feeling of captivity – in this case, in her inauspicious stomping grounds and the literal monster lurking within herself.
Full of moody visual aptitude, Castel proves she’s no slouch on the viewfinder. Much of the film is lit like a nightclub: mysterious and intoxicating at night and soberingly dingey during the day. One of this movie’s saving graces is its aesthetic value. But much like a wolfman (or wolfwoman), it’s a bit uglier underneath.
The script is courtesy of Jae Matthews, half of the electronic duo Boy Harsher, whose other half, Augustus Muller, provides the film’s overbearing musical cues and numbing synthwork.
The film’s primary focus is the unconvincing romance between Heather and Jonine. All the pair do is drink, use drugs and exchange awkward glances. These could be the basic constituents of young love, but it doesn’t make for particularly engaging viewing. What’s left unsaid between the two is expressed in several vivid sequences of physical intimacy.
Castel does the most with what she has. Stenberg and Menuez are solid but as disparate elements, rather than a pair.
Still, there are a lot of noteworthy individual elements. The film alludes to how, in small-town life, residents really only have each other.
Heather’s toxic environment of homophobic sentiment and figures of no ambition, coupled with her sexual and physical repression, is conceptually compelling, if underdeveloped. Portraying werewolfism as a metaphor for social decay sort of works. And if that sounds like a stretch, it’s because I did my calisthenics this morning.
Heather’s relationship with her worn-out father is perhaps the heart of the film. It’s a convincing bond, although it might just be the timbre of McHattie’s voice as he implores her to beware the blood moon and protect the family secret.
Ultimately, My Animal is chasing too many cars at a time. If you’re wondering more about the canine in the room, keep in mind that the werewolf stuff may be the least engaging aspect of the picture. It’s a story of two-dimensional characters speaking in hushed tones of a dark secret that I dare you to take seriously.
Published in Volume 78, Number 11 of The Uniter (November 23, 2023)