Hollywood likes neat endings, largely because, I suspect, people, the ones who puts bums on seats in cinemas, are also rather enamoured of them.
It makes sense that we are so enraptured – life is gloriously messy and full of frayed ends, and try as we might to tie everything up in neat, pretty existential bows, the universe has a mind of its own, untying bows, unravelling plans, throwing firmly-made decisions back into the realm of quivering indecision.
Animals, based on the book by Emma Jane Unsworth and directed with nuanced understanding and sensitivity by Australian Sophie Hyde, is intimately aware of the great gaping chasm between our fervent wishes for manicured simplicity and the stark reality of life’s often rampant disregard for any such order.
It also understands in ways that feel palpably real that a decision made at one searing point, in the heat of the moment, can be undone in the next, the product of the chaos and uncertainty that is an envitable part of being alive, or the simple act of being human where emotions shift like sand and our tenacious decision-making with them.
We are not, in other words, perfect beings.
And the two protagonists of Dublin-set Animals, Laura (Holliday Grainger) and Tyler (Alia Shawkat) are as fallible as anyone, never quite moving smoothly from A to B, waylaid not just by their endless, diversionary partying but by a fear of growing up or assuming responsibly, the kind that has meant Laura, an aspiring writer, has only written 10 pages of her novel in 10 years.
It sounds like a damning indictment of inaction, even to her, but it speaks to a dynamic that bedevils everyone; what we aim for and long for, hope and dream of, are all often sunk by the weight of our indecision or procrastination, none of which makes us bad people, just relatably, authentically human.
If nothing else, and there is a lot to like and appreciate about Laura and Tyler who are housemates, best friends, and inveterate hardcore partygoers, these two wonderful characters are deliciously, delightfully, hilarious human.
Their reactions to just about everything make sense.
Tyler, the ballsy, impromptu pusher of boundaries, acknowledges at one point that even though she has to work, since rent and bills must be paid blah blah blah, that doesn’t mean she can’t go “deep” into her nights, making the most of them, even if they tend to collide, rather amusingly and messily with her waking hours.
Who hasn’t at some point felt like that? Is it responsible? Well, no, and are their consequences? There most certainly are, but that doesn’t diminish for a second that Tyler feels vibrantly, vivaciously alive, armed with the Rolls Royce of witty oneliners and taking life on in a way that feels very relatable, even if you haven’t ever staged a 36 hour long birthday party.
Laura feels like exactly the kind of person each of us sometimes.
She stuffs up, she make decisions, reverses them and makes very poor ones, she aims for the stars and yet ends up wrapped around a toilet seat, novel not written, boyfriend ignored, vomiting out the contents of a drug and alcohol-addled stomach at 11 am after a night of partying that should’ve ended about eight hours earlier.
She is, regardless of the wisdom of her decisions and the inertia of her non-decisions, just like all of us – wanting her dreams to come gloriously to fruition but not quite able to make the transition to actually make that happen.
Together these two best friends, who are brilliantly close and co-dependently intertwined, face a real challenge then Laura, abandoned temporarily by her bestie and party pal for a quick eight-minute hook up in a pub, meets and falls in love with pianist Jim (Fra aka Francis Fee).
Addicted to a lifestyle of full-on partying, drug and alcohol-bingeing and the devil-may-care attitude that inevitably follows the dulling, by a substantial degree, of your senses and good judgement, the two friends are ill-equipped in a host of different ways, to cope with the wholesale changes this new romantic development exacts upon their relationship.
Neither, to be honest, handles it particularly well, but so well-written is the script and so intuitive insightful are the two characters, buoyed by the superlative chemistry between Grainger and Shawkat, that even as they make poor decision after poor decision, interrupted by damn good decisions, at least on Laura’s part, that are walked back in the cold light of relative day, you end up loving them.
They are gorgeously, wonderful, refreshingly human in a film that resolutely refuses, and more power to it, to follow the expected route.
In any other film, Laura would fall in love, be swept off her feet and turn her back on her sometimes-destructive partying ways – that particular character trajectory finds its expression in Laura’s now-sensible, new-mother sister Jean (Amy Molloy) who is scorned by Tyler especially as the safe, suburban option – but that’s not exactly what happens without giving too much away.
In keeping with the inherent, f*cked-up nature of the two women’s lives – they are in or entering their 30s, unrepentantly refusing to grow up; when Jean says to them “Sooner or later, the party has to end”, they both immediately respond with “Why?!” – the path of true love does not run smooth even as their friendship staggers and falls under the weight of looming, likely adulthood.
Animals succeeds because it throws narrative tropes to the wind, letting the tightly-written, non-improvised script unfurl with a raunchy sense of “whatevvvverrrr”-ness and a healthy dose of fallible humanity.
No, these two poor women are conforming to societal expectations, and yes, they are likely stuffing up a good many more things than they are not but that’s how life goes sometimes.
The film holds out hope, such as it is, that maybe they will get there one day but that is not the end goal; rather, it marks, explores and celebrates the idea that the business of getting through life is not some straight-as-an-arrow line that is followed scrupulously and well, but an often ill-judged higgledy-piggledy existentially-drunken romp through the pristine field of what might have been.
Would it be nice if life was always perfectly ordered and end points easily and always permanently arrived at?
It most certainly would, and we may be better off for it, but the reality this is often not what happens, and we have to hope that in the midst of all the mess and chaos and slurred steps to somewhere else, that our friends, our family and our tenacious desire to finally make those dreams come true, even if they are half-arsed and poorly expressed, will go the distance and we’ll arrive somewhere in the vicinity of where we want to be.
Animals gets this completely, and watching it feels joyously, fantastically liberating, fueled by exemplary performances by Shawkat and Grainger that surge with vivacity, truth and giddy glee, assured direction by Hyde, a euphorically good script by Unsworth (who adapted her own book) and a sensibility that life is an inexact science and we best hang on for the ride since getting to our eventual destination, if that’s even where end up, is going to messy, bumpy and hilariously, depressingly uncertain.