Horror, particularly some version of an internalized monster, as a metaphor for emerging sexuality, burgeoning romantic feelings, and family life engulfed in turmoil is nothing new. In My Animal, director Jacquelin Castel and writer Jae Matthews use this approach to tell the bittersweet tale of a young outsider wrestling with dark secrets, primal urges, and new love.
In a small, snowbound Canadian town in the 1980s, Heather (Bobbi Salvor Menuez, Under the Silver Lake) lives life on the outskirts, dreaming of playing hockey, a dream unlikely to happen because she’s a girl and systematic misogyny. Enter Jonny (Amandla Stenberg, The Hate U Give), a promising figure skater, troubled in her own way. As their relationship grows and evolves, they explore deep, forbidden passions and their relationship threatens to reveal Heather’s secret. Here's the rub…
Okay, I don’t consider this a SPOILER, because the reality is readily apparent from the very first scene. But the film flits around saying it explicitly, so do with this what you will.
…Heather is a werewolf. And when the moon is full, if not otherwise constrained, she does werewolf things, unable to control her base instincts. You understand how this may complicate a new romance, especially one already dealing with the small-town intolerance of the era, one party unsure of her own desires, and various societal pressures.
My Animal portrays Heather’s family as deeply dysfunctional, everyone dealing with this heavy familial burden in their own fashion. Heather lashes and acts out; her father, Henry, an excellent Stephen McHattie (Pontypool), from whom Heather inherits her curse, carries his own weight and anger, which rears its ugly head from time to time; and her mother, Patti (Heidi von Palleske, Dead Ringers), sinks into a drunken stupor, emerging only to erupt at her daughter or for moments of unexpected tenderness. There are also twin teen boys, Cooper and Hardy (Charles F. and Harrison W. Halpenny), who are basically nonentities.
The real meat of the movie exists between Heather and Jonny. Menuez and Stenberg carry the bulk of that weight and are both excellent. Menuez gives Heather’s frustration a palpable, visceral presence. Stenberg’s aloof exterior masks her own significant pain and the immense pressure her own father (Kids in the Hall alum Scott Thompson) and others place on her.
Working with cinematographer Bryn McCashin, Castel creates a gauzy, impressionistic portrait of young, taboo romance infused with supernatural terror. When she’s with Jonny, Heather floats through a dreamy tableau of hazy red lights, pulsing throwback synth music, and intimate framing that enhances the closeness. This juxtaposes in stark fashion against the bright, sharp images of the local ice rink or the cave-like interiors of Heather’s depressing, threadbare home.
Castel and Matthews capture the oppressive sensation of living in a place where everyone thinks they know you, even as you hide your truest self from prying eyes. Every wall, every rigid social boundary and barrier, every expectation to conform, piles up until the characters can barely breath, their only available option to strike out, often blindly. The film uses close frames and tight rooms, images of heavy chains, and many-locked doors to drive this feeling home. This perception of repression already permeates everything, and Heather’s true nature only exacerbates all of it that much further.
Though it may not entirely come together in an entirely satisfying way in the end, My Animal demonstrates a strong, singular directorial hand. Especially for a first feature. The werewolf elements are almost incidental—remove them and the story still works close to as intended. The film uses that lycanthropic framework and mythology to tell the story of jilted first love, finding oneself amid all the noise of growing up, and coming to terms with who and where we are. What could possibly be more human than that? [Grade: B+]