‘My Animal’ Review: A Moody, Trippy Queer Werewolf Romance Is Limited, But A Remarkably Assured Debut [Sundance]

Feb 9, 2023

Like most teenagers, Heather (non-binary actor Bobbi Salvör Menuez), a social misfit who lives in a rural town in northern Canada, has a strict midnight curfew to adhere to. But unlike other teenagers, staying out for longer has a much more dangerous effect on her. We learn that in the opening scene of “My Animal,” — the camera trains its gaze on the red-headed Heather sitting in a dark room watching a werewolf movie while slowly transforming into a werewolf herself, her eyes glowing and her breath heaving. It’s a condition that director Jacqueline Castel suggests Heather inherited from her father, Henry (Stephen McHattie) — and although the film doesn’t interpret her attacks as a family curse, it still complicates Heather’s already existing feelings of alienation. 
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Even before she stumbled upon her secret werewolf identity, Heather had lived out a life of loneliness on the fringes; an awkward red-haired social outcast habituated to suppressing facets of her identity instead of sharing it — or even celebrating it. A friendless introvert who works at the neighborhood ice rink, Heather’s one dream is to play for the all-male hockey team. But as luck would have it, the coach prefers her younger brothers over her in the team. 
As we soon learn, Heather’s intense feelings of exclusion aren’t only triggered by her furry transformation or even family dysfunctionalism. Instead, it is rooted squarely in her repressed lesbian sexuality. Heather’s conflicted sense of self is challenged when she meets Jonny (a luminous Amandla Stenberg), a gorgeous figure-skater at the grocery store. It’s easy to tell that Heather is instantly enamored by Jonny, and it doesn’t help that their meet-cute is cut short when Jonny abruptly takes off with Rick, her macho boyfriend (Cory Lipman).
That alone situates the androgynous Heather as an unlikely werewolf heroine, making her story that much more captivating and elevating “My Animal” from a standard coming-of-age drama. In her remarkably assured feature debut, Castel sensitively amplifies Heather’s outsider status in “My Animal” by blending Heather’s dual identities in the plot. The story at hand is two-fold — an evocative character portrait of a young woman who struggles to follow her passion in a male-dominated sport while trying to find love and acceptance in a world where heterosexuality is the norm. Indeed, deciding to feature a queer protagonist as the lead of a werewolf drama is a clever touch of hand, given that it adds thematic weight to refashioning a story about queer first love. 
The unhurried pace of “My Animal” gains from Castel’s hyper-stylistic flourishes. Working with cinematographer Bryn McCashin, the filmmaker relies on a chilly palette to craft the film as a rewarding mood piece. For much of the film, the filmmaker employs the color red to articulate Heather’s inner anxieties, a decision that adds a more ominous edge to “My Animal.” Still, the pleasures of the swaying camera are best evident in scenes that feature Heather and Jonny in the same frame — the camera frames them in ingenious ways, putting them at a remove from the rest of the world as if to underline the importance of the world they discover when they are in each other’s company.
That’s visible in one of the film’s best scenes that capture Heather and Jonny making out with each other in a dimly-lit bathroom with an urgency that doesn’t only feel revelatory but also necessary. The heat that this scene generates is driven in part due to the efficiency of McCashin’s camera, in its ability to convey surging hunger and satiation with a detached eye. The restraint that Castel shows in her rendering of this queer romance is masterfully contrasted by the showy renditions of Heather’s transformation and sexual dreams as if knowing exactly when to tease the audience and when to pull back. In fact, the sizzling chemistry that Menuez and Stenberg effortlessly conjure up is also worth noting, given that “My Animal” is at its strongest when it has both of them onscreen. 
Still, for a film with such a distinctive, trippy personality, “My Animal” ends up being unbelievably conservative and vapid in its plotting — the narrative doesn’t seem interested in ever climaxing. Both Heather and Jonny appear to be largely underdeveloped characters, which takes away primarily from the effectiveness of the lead performances. The understanding of how Heather’s strained familial relationships shape her identity is likewise limited. Even more baffling is the superficial commentary that plagues Jae Matthews’ stilted screenplay. That means “My Animal” squanders the chance to employ Heather’s animal transformation as a metaphor for her budding libido in exciting, intriguing ways. Even Jonny’s conflicted feelings about her own sexuality is vaguely rendered, leaving the film with an all-around emptiness. In its inability to sell its narrative stakes, “My Animal” falls short despite its promising potential. [C+]
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