MY ANIMAL (Sundance FF2023) – Review by Nadine Whitney
Although the queer female vampire has been a staple of cinema for many years, the same cannot be said for the female lycanthrope. Werewolves are overwhelmingly male, although curiously the first piece of now lost Werewolf cinema featured a woman transferring her lycanthropy to her daughter in 1913’s silent short film The Werewolf.
To survey all the werewolf related films and female representation within them is beyond the scope of a review. What is fascinating is that lycanthropy, queerness, and women’s desire is ripe fruit that seems rarely plucked. The success of the first two Ginger Snaps films showed that coming-of-age and female power and rage worked through the metaphor of lycanthropy offered a rich yet rarely explored avenue for self-actualisation in horror cinema.
Less successful was the queer romance/horror Jack & Diane where lesbian desire became metaphorically monstrous through wolf imagery – although the lycanthrope aspect of the film was what made it interesting beyond the pairing of upcoming actors Juno Temple and Riley Keough.
Burgeoning sexuality, outsider desire, and the young woman or women at the center of such melange of potent forces make for transgressive genre fare. What happens when Little Red Riding Hood wants to be the wolf? In Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves which adapts Angela Carter’s short stories, the adolescent Rosaleen breaks the bounds of patriarchal convention and becomes a woman on her own terms.
My Animal, striking and immersive in direction by debut feature maker Jacqueline Castel, has all the ingredients to use lycanthropy and queerness in a coming-of-age fable that empowers the protagonist, Heather (Bobbi Salvör Menuez) but wastes the potential in a messy script which serves to more often than not disempower her.
Opening with a potent and arresting scene where Heather as a child is watching the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ episode from Faerie Tale Theater. The moon above the fuzzy television set is becoming full and Heather’s nose begins to bleed profusely. She escapes out the window and into the winter snow to the horror of her mother, Patti (Heidi von Palleske) who chases her. Heather’s father, Henry (Stephen McHattie) arrives, and the audience becomes aware that Heather has inherited her lycanthropic traits through him.
The film jumps a few years forward. Heather is now a young woman living in a nowhere town in Northern Canada in presumably the early 1990s. Patti is an abusive alcoholic who resents both Heather and Henry. Heather, along with her twin brothers Hardy and Cooper (Charles and Harrison Halpenny) spend as much time as they can at the local ice rink where the twins play high school ice hockey and Heather dreams of joining the local male-only team as a goalie.
Heather is a loner, not just because she has two secrets she’s hiding – her lesbian sexuality and her lycanthropy, but also because there is nowhere for her to go in the town. Her outsider status comes from the public knowledge of Patti’s drinking problems and her never fitting in with her peers because of her tomboy looks. With no prospects outside of her small community, her job is as a cleaner and concession seller at the rink.
Life changes for Heather when the beguiling figure skater Jonny (Amandla Stenberg) moves to town with her stage-managing father. The two form an immediate rapport and Jonny seems genuinely interested in getting to know Heather and in doing so breaks down Heather’s shyness and reticence.
Both young women come from trauma and loss – Jonny’s mother died, and her father is controlling. Jonny doesn’t judge Heather for her poverty or family. Instead, she pulls Heather into a world where she is for the first time experiencing what it is to be like an ordinary teenager.
Despite the growing attraction between the two, Jonny remains with her toxic and violent baseball star boyfriend, Rick (Cory Lipman). Heather’s fantasies about making love to Jonny are intense and shot with a surrealist glow, as if they could only be a dream. When the dream becomes a reality and Jonny and Heather finally have sex, Castel and cinematographer Bryan McCosh employ a hazy style that disorients the viewer. Are Heather’s libidinal desires causing her to morph into a wolf? Is it her subconscious or is it something real? Regardless, in the cold light of day Jonny rejects Heather and Heather not only loses her only friend outside her father, but also the person she came to love and trust.
Non-binary actor Bobbi Salvör Menuez gives an admirable performance as the conflicted and damaged Heather. They have palpable screen chemistry with Amandla Stenberg. Stephen McHattie is excellent as Henry – a man who wishes he could rip the moon out of the sky so he and his daughter could live free lives – lives without literal and figurative shackles. “It’s painful,” he tells Heather “but we can make anything work.” A sadly ironic statement as so little has worked for both Henry and Heather.
Eventually what lets My Animal down is Jae Matthews’ script which meanders in too many directions and engages in a kind of fatalism that feeds into queer misery. Despite the strong central performances, technically accomplished direction, and an excellent soundtrack, My Animal doesn’t quite know what its central thesis is. Is it worse that Heather is a lesbian in a small community, or is it worse that she’s an actual mythical monster? If she becomes open about her sexuality does she unleash a beast?
Although the end does provide a small catharsis for Heather as she claims her anger, it also suggests that she could never just exist within her community. At one stage her mother says, “You were supposed to be my little girl, but you’re just like him [Henry]” and berates her for wearing Henry’s jacket because she looks like a dyke. The only advice Patti has for Heather is that she has to get out of town. Heather the lesbian and Heather the werewolf merge into a creature with no space to belong. Whether Heather moving on is a good or a tragic necessity is up for interpretation; but considering how little joy Heather has been afforded in the film, self-determination and acceptance remain nebulous at best.