My Animal Review: The werewolf myth finds fresh blood

Sundance: Filmmaker Jacqueline Castel unleashes a cadre of tropes for her debut, but she deftly pulls them together into a unique new vision.

At the beginning of My Animal, Jacqueline Castel’s one-of-a-kind lesbian lycan horror film, an ecstatic Heather (an amazing Bobbi Salvör Menuez) in her white nightgown sits on her knees while the gray glow of a TV emanates from the face of a full moon. envelops them. The bluish circles under her eyes deepen, blood oozes from her nose, her body contorts, her bones crack and her tendons twist. Snarling, she drags herself across the carpet in her darkened living room before leaping out of her house and through the woods for an immersive recreation of a werewolf transformation.

And yet it’s not just a dedication to the genre – the pounding electronic ’80s music, the fluid grayscale imagery of trees, or the aggressive, wobbling handheld tracking through the snowy forest that evokes Castel’s film. It’s the Beauty and the Beast episode of the Shelly Duvall hosted series Faerie Tale Theater that Heather watched on her TV that anchors us in the charged sensual and painful sexual politics of Castel’s vision.

“Love can make a man a beast, and love can make an ugly man beautiful,” says the prince. And love is what will fully awaken Heather.

A dark coming-of-age fairy tale, My Animal uses a slowly building tension to slide us – and the film’s character – towards a subversive catharsis. Through Heather, a teenage girl living in a remote town who takes a romantic interest in Jonny (Amandla Stenberg), an overworked figure skater, first-time filmmaker Castel revitalizes the queer subtext of shifted identity inherent in most Lycan legends with a vicious one Enabling vision to unfold.

Not only does Heather endure bullying from the local boys, in a style often reminiscent of “Carrie,” but her personal life is in tatters. Her younger twin brothers find her sexual orientation disgusting, her drunk mother (Heidi von Palleske) oscillates between soothing and vicious, and Heather can never leave the house after midnight for fear of revealing her identity (leading to her even being in tied to a purple sleeps red bed). Her only fully supportive family member is her frail Lycan father (a sage Stephen McHattie).

Heather finds solace in Jonny. Often abused by her coach and disregarded by her boyfriend, Jonny, despite her proximity to the cool kid clique, is at least emotionally an outcast like Heather. Their relationship seethes not only because of their shared sense of separation, but also because of the stress Heather feels as she wonders if she can reveal both her sexual and physical identities.

This simple metaphorical direction in Jae Matthews’ screenplay – drawing on young-adult tropes, queer horrors like “Knife + Heart” and “The Hunger,” and homages to ’80s movies – offers Castel effective angles to twist normal teenage angst into suspenseful set pieces close . For example, in one scene, Heather’s night out with Jonny and her friends goes awry when Heather loses track of time after taking LSD. When her clock beeps past midnight, Heather stumbles away before fully transforming into a werewolf.

The wolf scenes blossom with a blurry, insanely swinging frenzy that turns to the point of burn. This explosion teases as Heather and Jonny grow closer. Cinematographer Bryn McCashin bathes scenes in passionate reds as his lens captures sensual fragments that spin with the ease found in the Greek imagination of eros. There is a knowing symmetry inherent in Menuez and Stenberg’s performance. Menuez is visibly cautious, speaking softly and folded in but defiantly wide in her searching gaze. Stenberg continues to carve out a sense of loneliness amidst the desolate landscape, fulfilling the outline function but appearing in a signed scroll.

In a film about freedom to live one’s identity, it’s odd that Jonny, seemingly the only black man in this remote, snow-capped town, navigates the 1980s milieu unencumbered. We would expect a more solid backstory about her upbringing in terms of loneliness being hinted at throughout the film. Much like Heather’s family, she comes precariously close to a monotony that might lag in this fairytale setting, but can be frustrating. The city is just as unexpected. This opacity, a topicality designed by Castel, is certainly due to the screenplay’s adherence to fairytale tropes.

At one point, when tragedy strikes and Jonny and Heather are on the rocks, there’s so much spinning in Castel that you wonder if she can really pull it all together. They also begin to raise other questions: What is the setting of this film’s horror? What does catharsis and liberation mean for this character? When does the killing begin?

But Castel is an intelligent filmmaker. She spends much of “My Animal” dropping breadcrumbs, such as overt references to “Carrie,” that lure audiences into an answer they think they already know. She pokes and stabs, rousing our curiosity to ecstatic bloodlust. However, if your only reason for coming to My Animal is carnage and gore, Castel isn’t willing to gratify that desire.

It’s a difficult trick she pulls off. One that feels too neat and too delicate at first glance. And yet the film does not seek revenge. She is looking for understanding, for sovereignty, for a comforting love, not in what she cannot be, but in her true nature. Heather, covered in scars, finds that love. Castel’s nurturing of My Animal delivers a safe horror film guided by a radically sensitive but no less brutal touch.

Grade: B+

My Animal premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Paramount will release it at a later date.

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Lindsay Lowe

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