SUNDANCE 2019: Animals
Adapting her own 2014 novel of the same name, screenwriter Emma Jane Unsworth has teamed with director Sophie Hyde to tell the tale of two hedonistic women in their early thirties who are struggling with the concept of settling down and ‘acting their age.’ Starring two of the best actresses working today; Holliday Grainger as Laura and Alia Shawkat as Tyler, the film transplants the book’s setting – from Manchester to Dublin – and is a glorious feel-good, hilarious burst of colour and glitter, until reality (and the hangover) sets in.
Holliday Grainger has been a steadily working actress in British film and TV for some time now, appearing in small roles in countless period adaptations (My Cousin Rachel, Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, Anna Karenina). She has appeared in the occasional more big-budget Hollywood film (Cinderella, The Finest Hours), but again, tending to be in supporting roles. It is gratifying to see her take centre stage here and finally getting the chance to showcase her acting talent. Alia Shawkat is best known for her TV roles in Arrested Development, Search Party and Transparent but has appeared in many indie films as well. It is interesting to see her as an American in Dublin, very much partaking in the binge-drinking culture. Their friendship seems completely authentic onscreen – they are housemates who share all of the intimacies of a couple, including seeing each other naked and sharing a bathroom, no matter what the other one might be doing in there at the time. One of the major themes of the film is the co-dependency that can develop between housemates as adults and that if new relationships come along, it can feel like you are cheating on your best friend.
It is an increasing aspect of modern life that many people in their thirties or even forties, especially in cities are still living with flat or housemates. The dynamics of these urban families are ripe for exploration and this film does not shy away from the positives of this intimacy, as well as the unhealthy aspects of these relationships. The script is both hilarious and heart-breaking – Laura’s relationship with her family is a lovely aspect – she is close with her parents and sister and Tyler has become part of Laura’s family. Laura is a ‘struggling’ writer – in that she has been ‘working’ on the same book for ten years, but the realisation comes that maybe she hasn’t been so much working on it, as procrastinating about it all this time. Tyler has been enabling this dream for all of this time and this is one of the aspects of their relationship which comes under strain.
Two of the best aspects of this film is the costume design by Renate Henschke and production design by Louise Matthews. The Dublin flat the two ladies share is enormous, ramshackle and bohemian – there are numerous small nick-nacks and postcards and feather boas etc adorning the rooms which feel completely real and lived-in. It is absolutely reminiscent of the student houses that most of us have shared. The clothes are to die for – they are the product of your every vintage, retro, colourful fever-dream. This is not a glossy Hollywood or New York version of a female friendship or a fanciful depiction of the life of a struggling writer. This has a full three-dimensional, natural and layered quality due to the writing, performances and the completely believable world-building around the characters.
Laura finds herself torn between two men – the sensible concert pianist Jim (Fra Fee) and the riskier writer Marty (Dermot Murphy). But the real conflict in her life is between getting married to Jim and settling down to a conventional life or remaining with Tyler in their life of debauched freedom. Laura sees her sister, who used to be dancing naked on bars with Laura and Tyler ‘reduced’ to a life in the suburbs with a newborn baby. Laura doesn’t want that, but also feels she can’t go on living as she has been with Tyler – in a dead-end job, constantly drunk or high and getting through men with abandon. This will be a relatable quandary for many women and men of a similar age and the film does not provide neatly packaged or easily digestible answers. These women are flawed, complex and nuanced. They make many questionable mistakes and selfish decisions, but are clever, funny and real.
Both Emma Jane Unsworth and Sophie Hyde should now be “ones to watch” and it is exciting to think about where their careers could go from here. It is gratifying that Holliday Grainger has finally got to play a character worthy of her talents and let’s hope that she gets more starring roles after this. Animals was one of the most enjoyable films of Sundance 2019 and it deserves to be a break-out hit. Spend some time with two relatable women wearing gorgeous clothes in the literary scene of a beautiful city – you won’t regret it.
Directed by: Sophie Hyde
Cast: Holliday Grainger, Alia Shawkat, Fra Fee