Sundance London 2019: Animals Review
In a week where we see the release of the year’s best comedy so far in Booksmart - a sharp, often hilarious and sincere ode to enduring friendships and growing up - it feels right that visitors to Sundance London this weekend get a first look at another tight duo at a more advanced stage of their lives. Director Sophie Hyde adapts Emma Jane Unsworth’s acclaimed novel of the same name with the author serving as screenwriter, her hedonistic story of booze, drugs and changing dynamics led by two magnetic performers in Holliday Grainger and Alia Shawkat.
Where Booksmart’s Amy and Molly were desperate to throw off the shackles to revel in some much needed fun before they depart for university, Grainger’s Irish 32-year-old Laura and Shawkat’s American soon-to-be-30 Tyler are wholeheartedly committed to doing everything possible to avoid following the expectation placed upon women by society. While not quite at Withnail and I levels of debauchery, you’d be hard pressed to find a more inebriated film this year.
Unsworth’s story was originally set in Manchester, but for the sake of this adaptation has been transplanted across the Irish Sea into Dublin. Laura and Tyler have been best buds for a decade and separating them now is damn near impossible. Of course, it helps that they live together (in a pretty cool house considering they are both low-paid baristas) and their party hard attitude remains as strong as it was when they first became friends. But you can only ward off the sands of time for so long, and if you don’t slow down, then life has a way of figuring out how to do it for you.
Laura soon finds she can’t balance a committed relationship with career-focussed pianist, Jim (Fra Fee), while maintaining the same carefree, boozy existence she has cultivated with Tyler, who is staunchly against the idea of settling down. One time party-partner in crime and older sister, Jean (Amy Molliy) announces she is pregnant and Laura is forced to confront the prospect of ‘becoming an adult’. But does the prospect of raising babies, being the dutiful wife and living in quiet suburbia (the sound of death as Tyler calls it) live up to the once lofty dreams that lay ahead of her at the start of her 20s?
Laura is also a budding writer, although it has taken her 10 years to write a notepad filled with scribbled notes that have been jotted down in between the copious amounts of liquor consumed by Tyler and herself. Which might suggest Unsworth’s story is autobiographical, but that is apparently not the case. Grainger has to carry the emotional weight of the film, which she does with the smallest of facial movements, detailing a woman in turmoil whose next life choices have to be the right ones to avoid repeating the last decade all over again. In the real world Grainger is as British as they come, but her Irish accent on display here is near faultless.
While Laura’s perspective is given precedence, her indecisiveness about what to do next with her life can also be seen in Tyler, although to a lesser degree. Which is a shame as Shawkat’s effervescent performance (she also shone recently in Ethan Hawke’s fantastic biopic Blaze) is deserving of a little more character exploration. We never truly understand the personal issues she is trying to escape from, and although much of Shawkat’s dialogue sounds like it has been lifted directly from the novel, her sharp delivery keeps it sounding amusingly fresh and natural.
What really makes Animals tick is how believable Grainger and Shawkat make their friendship feel. It’s a layered relationship filled with good and bad memories, living life as they see fit rather than being neutered by the expectations of others. The strength of the writing and performances mean that any mention of Hyde’s direction has been reduced to little more than a footnote for this review, which is a little unfair. She finds the right balance between pathos and humour to involve us in the complications that come with any long term relationship, platonic or otherwise. Regardless of their gender, most people will see something of their current, or former, selves in Laura and Tyler - and the only thing left to decide is whether to party on or get off the ride.
Animals will play at Sundance London this weekend - visit the website to see if there are any tickets left.
Sophie Hyde's film will also be opening in UK cinemas on August 2.