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Animals (2013)
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by Jay Seaver

4 stars

"Animals" is a coming-of-age story that perches right on the border between an impressive level of ambition and complexity on the one side and trying to do too much on the other. There's a whole movie just in how the teenage protagonist is stumbling around with this new attraction thing, but director Marçal Forés and his two co-writers have a lot of other things going on as well, and that's before you get to the talking teddy bear.

The bear, Deerhoof, belongs to Pol (Oriol Pla), a seemingly-average teenager in Catalonia. He lives with his older brother Llorenç (Javier Beltrán), attends an English-language high school with his best friend Laia (Roser Tapias), spending enough time together that his other friend Mark (Dimitri Leonidas) teases they're already engaged, although how each feels about that is open for debate. They spend some time watching a pair of further-outsiders: Ikari (Augustus Prew), who mostly avoids the other students, and Clara (Maria Rodríguez), who has been acting strange since nearly drowning a little while ago and soon disappears.

The film is undoubtedly Pol's story, but one of the impressive things about it is that this is in many ways more a function of Forés training the camera on him than anything else. The climax of the movie involves a number of characters who were outside Pol's circle, but despite their relatively fleeting appearances in the film up until then, they all seem real enough, not just there to accomplish one thing or fill out a scene. It's an impressive bit of work by Forés and the young cast, with Roser Tapieas and Augustus Prew especially noteworthy as the two people who spend the most time with Pol, along with Javier Beltrán as a brother clearly not sure how to act as a guardian (literally, as he has recently started as a policeman) and Martin Freeman as the kids' art history teacher.

Oriol Pla is the one who is in almost every scene, of course, and Animals rests solidly on his shoulders. For all that Pol is clearly troubled and confused, Pla manages to get this across with an impressively restrained performance. For all that still having Deerhoof as an imaginary friend indicates nervousness about growing up, Pol never comes across as foolish or immature; he's more a constant ball of tension, with only a few things serving as any kind of release. This is doubly the case when he's confronting how he feels about both Ikari and Laia; for all that these seem to be twenty-first century kids who don't care about others' sexuality, Pla plays out a couple of scenes with an impressively desperate desire to be "normal".

Some of the only times he gets to be relaxed are with Deerhoof, who is a fairly impressive creation. Forés opts to use puppetry rather than CGI wherever possible - it's probably telling that the only points where Deerhoof truly look like digital animation are when he's a completely imaginary presence - and the gangly limbs that don't look like they'd support any weight combine with how his voice is a flat assembly of recorded English phrases to not only make Deerhoof clearly a product of Pol's imagination, but one with a specific origin, even if we're not privy to it. He's very much a part of the visual style Forés uses for the movie as a whole, not particularly drained of color but somewhat flat; there are striking moments and scenes, but as a whole, the impression is an ordinary town one whose details one might take for granted if one lived there.

Perhaps that's why certain bits may need a little turning over in the viewer's head afterward to sit right; Forés and co-writers Enric Pardo & Aintza Serra go in some odd directions to drive Pol and the movie itself to the ending it has, some of which seem a stretch even in a movie with a talking teddy bear. There's a dark, morbid streak in the film that is never hidden but which can seem forced, especially in one case which turns out to be misdirection. It's a bit unsatisfying at first, and I don't think that's necessarily because the filmmakers don't go for the ending that the audience is likely to want or expect.

Is it the one they need? That's a trickier question, but the fact that "Animals" keeps me thinking about what's happened rather than dismissing it or moving on right away is an indication that it's certainly doing something right.

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originally posted: 01/26/14 04:13:14
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2013 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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  15-Oct-2013 (NR)
  DVD: 26-Nov-2013



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