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Girls, interrupted: Sophie Hyde’s ‘Animals’

By Luke Goodsell
This untamed depiction of female friendship moves beyond basic binaries of freedom and control

Alia Shawkat and Holliday Grainger in Animals. Photograph by Bernard Walsh, courtesy of Bonsai Films

“The way I see it, girls are tied to beds for two reasons – sex and exorcisms,” says Tyler (Alia Shawkat), inspecting the tangled predicament of her BFF, Laura (Holliday Grainger), early in Sophie Hyde’s Animals. It’s the kind of unfiltered comic patter that’s become a staple of refreshingly frank, female-created stories about friendship between young (white) women, work that’s evolved from Claudia Weill’s pioneering Girlfriends (1978) to a degree of prominence in film and television this decade – in the likes of Tiny Furniture (2010), Girls (2012–17), Frances Ha (2012), Broad City (2014–19) and Fleabag (2016–19), to name just a few.

In many ways these stories reflect a suspended, subversive adolescence – indistinguishable in a sense from their nieces in Lady Bird (2017) and this year’s Booksmart – and a justified liberation from the social manners instilled by centuries of patriarchy. But what happens, Hyde’s film wonders, when these girls are interrupted by the pressure to find some form of work–life stability – when the party stops and exorcism starts looking like a feasible option?

Hyde and screenwriter Emma Jane Unsworth relocate the latter’s 2014 novel from Manchester to Dublin, where a permanent dusk seems to hang over the city and the characters’ youth. Laura is a wannabe writer in her early 30s who’s been working on a novel to little avail for a decade. Her American partner-in-drinking-crime, Tyler, meanwhile, is on the verge of 30 and content to indulge their desultory ways – endless parties, hook-ups in bathrooms, watching bad rock bands with worthless dudes, and stealing wine and drugs wherever they can find them. “The night is a zoo,” says Laura, glassy eyed in a cab en route to a bar, “and the next day is its museum.”

Shawkat, who’s come of age in the era from Arrested Development (2003–18) to Search Party (2016–17) to last year’s queer romance Duck Butter, plays Tyler – whose surname may as well be Durden – as her generation’s mischievous id, decked out in a procession of feather boas, vintage fleeces and bug-eyed sunglasses; quoting Heathers over too-early breakfast cocktails; and lounging, stoned, in the faux-renaissance squalor of a shared apartment listening to no wave hits by ESG and Lene Lovich. She’s a punk ’20s flapper, or Times Square’s (1980) Robin Johnson if she never grew up; a premature resident of Grey Gardens who refuses to capitulate to the ugly responsibility of an adult world.

It’s a lifestyle that the more sensible Laura – who’s already been told to get it together by her obnoxiously pregnant older sister – is feeling pressure to leave behind. When she meets Jim (Fra Free), a slab of apparently sentient stability in a starched white shirt and patent leather shoes, she immediately falls for him and the illusion of adult comfort. Laura’s fast engagement to Jim doesn’t sit well with Tyler, who’s a fierce enemy of the institution of marriage. “You’re like a human baton being passed from one tyrant to the next, gross!” she chides, despite Laura’s feeble protests that she’s blazing a feminist trail within traditional structures. The schism swiftly drives the once-inseparable best friends apart. “She made me feel like I was being unfaithful to her,” Laura tells Jim, underscoring how friendship can carry the weight of intimacy.

Not that Laura isn’t torn. Sensing entrapment, she’s lured back towards her former abandon and to the cringey orbit of the literary world, where raggedly cute but shitty poets give live reads and issue drivel like “all relationships are creative acts” before resorting, in one of the film’s funniest scenes, to low-rent porn behaviour behind closed doors. The film is smart enough to attribute its somewhat on-the-nose central metaphor – that an animal’s primary need isn’t food or sex but safety – to one such drug-addled douche (played by Dermot Murphy), but the moment is corny nonetheless. A wayward, magical fox is even glimpsed scampering through alleyways at various points, in case you missed the analogy (or needed to reminded of Fleabag.)

Animals doesn’t just understand these people, it looks and sounds like the sort of thing they’d binge-watch. The film opens on a kind of “previously, on Animals” montage scored to electroclash star Peaches (a nod to the youth of ageing thirty-somethings), and has the tastefully saturated colours and rhythm of prestige television – where nothing is lingered on for too long, lest the viewer’s attention drift to their Tinder app or an open tab on Vulture. It’s the sort of film where people say things like “we curate our experiences based on our desires”, which sounds like a slogan for some hellish wine-tasting tour, but works perfectly within the world that Hyde sets out to capture.

For a worrying stretch, Animals seems to tread a dangerously basic path of false binaries: partying versus responsibility, abandon versus order; as though the two couldn’t possibly coexist. As Laura’s sister, Jean (Amy Molloy), admonishes, you either grow up or get left behind, and to that extent the film offers Tyler as cautionary scapegoat: floating through her 30th birthday party in a druggy haze, or curled up in catatonic misery on her frayed vintage sofa, mason jar full of cocaine drained to the dregs, she’s a tragic ghost of Christmas future for anyone who dares jump the career tracks. Tyler’s wildness is presented as a symptom of social malaise, and not, say, a political or subversive act – to which you’d have to look for reassurance to the anarchic heroines of European cinema, like the Maries in Vera Chytilová’s Daisies (1966), or the eponymous sprites of Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974).

Thankfully Hyde, whose best-known work is the Adelaide-set trans drama 52 Tuesdays, isn’t too concerned with adhering to convention. She and Unsworth push back against these cultural restraints, unmooring their characters in more uncertain – and thus more rewarding – emotional territory. And though the would-be grace notes stray toward cliché – Laura leaning from a moving car to declare her newfound sense of self, or the flurry of movie typing meant to evoke her sudden surge of inspiration – they can be forgiven because Animals sets out to at least free its leads from their culturally mandated cages. Maybe you can grow up without growing old, the movie posits, or vice versa – it’s entirely up to you. (And maybe spilling red wine on a newborn baby, as happens here, is – correctly – very funny, and not the low point of some drunken life spiral.)

At one point, Laura asks Tyler her opinion of Jim, and her best friend replies, “I think you can do better.” When Laura wonders with whom, Tyler simply laughs. “Well, it doesn’t have to be an actual person, does it?”

Maybe these two don’t need men, or even love, at all.

Luke Goodsell

Luke Goodsell is a critic and editor who has contributed to the ABC, SBS and the Melbourne International Film Festival.

@timebombtown

Alia Shawkat and Holliday Grainger in Animals. Photograph by Bernard Walsh, courtesy of Bonsai Films

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