For some reason, despite its longevity in the realm of storytelling (not just cinema), horror is often pushed to the sidelines in the hallowed halls of critical praise in favor of dramas, comedies, thrillers, or traditional action-oriented narratives. Even though awards mean little toward a film’s success or the successes of the creatives behind/in-front of the camera, where are the nominations for Mia Goth (Pearl (2022)), Andrea Riseborough (Possessor (2020)), and Lupita Nyong’o (US (2019))? These films have their proselytizers, yet, there was little broad or critical acceptance, or, at the very least, not enough to make a difference in shifting perceptions by the time of year critical or institutional organizations handed out accolades. Having its world premiere at Sundance Film Festival 2023 is a new film, written by first-time screenwriter Jae Matthews and first-time feature director Jacqueline Castel, that’s going to make heads turn, and is likely destined to land with the same niche audience who will love it as they do the aforementioned others. Mainstream be damned, Castel’s My Animal is a gut-wrenching horror tale led by a riveting performance from Bobbi Salvör Menuez (Under the Silver Lake) that takes all the strain of isolation born of multiple traumas and dares the audience not to look away.
In a small town, living a small existence, is Heather (Menuez). She has no friends, she works as the local ice rink doing everything from concessions to janitorial work, and she’s constantly on the outside of things, even with her family. She is a secret-keeper, carrying the kind that could put her live in jeopardy if someone found out. It’s a heavy burden and one that feels even briefly lifted when she meets figure skater Jonny (Amandla Stenberg). The two grow close, an unspoken connection pulling them together. But Heather’s secrets keep pulling her back, daring her to take a chance, to reveal herself to the world while threatening to take it all away in the process.
So often horror films work in the realm of metaphors. Concepts of birth and rebirth, sexual awakenings, transformations of all kinds, representing the very real transitions individuals face daily. My Animal both deals in metaphors and speaks plainly, allowing both forms to be upfront for the audience, swirling together, mixing, until one may not be sure which is meant to be taken as fact versus insinuation. One thing is recognizable. The director, script, cinematography, and performances operate in concert, deftly taking the members of the audience on a painful journey, conscripting them to be Heather’s voiceless/bodiless confidants, perhaps the only people outside of herself who truly see her. So let’s talk specificity as it exists within My Animal: Heather is a werewolf and she’s gay. The former we learn more or less explicitly as the opening scene is a collection of ideas which convey a young Heather’s transformation occurring almost unexpectedly, the young girl shown watching a staged production of Beauty and the Beast as her nose bleeds and her eyes start to form an orange-like reflection where the irises belong. The audience is given just enough to come to understand this to be her first transformation, that it’s unexpected, and that her life (and the lives of those around her) is changed forever. Though the score from Augustus Muller (The Runner) and the cinematography from Bryn McCashin (Bite Size Halloween) indicate that this is something otherworldly and, perhaps, a little dangerous, there’s no indication from young Heather that this is uncomfortable, no aspect of what we see that implies it’s unnatural. It is only in the way that what occurs is handled that results in the horror arising. Plainly, simply, and with the right about of disquiet, Castel immediately puts forth the idea of that which is natural to a person is not terrifying, the terror comes only from the way others make us feel by placing upon us expectations or social norms. Menuez devastates with her performance, internalizing all the rejection (actual and perceived), projecting the death by a thousand cuts Heather experiences each day in almost every moment of her life. Particularly as the events of her first transformation inform the rest of the film, the undercurrent of acceptance and self-love become more and more tormenting in their exploration.
This is where Heather’s journey becomes excruciating for her and the audience. She’s hiding in plain sight, visible to anyone who dares throw her a glance, but not even her family sees her. The closest out of anyone is her father Henry, played gently and lovingly by Stephen McHattie (Watchmen), but he only sees her struggle with the transformation each month when the full moon arises. It’s not until Jonny arrives that the other part of herself, the part she keeps hidden from everyone, yearns agonizingly to be explored. My Animal may be a horror film where the lead is a werewolf, but all of that comes second to Heather’s coming out. As if to make it clear to the audience where their focus should be, the transformations aren’t explained and are largely skipped over. No lore or rules are offered beyond a connection to her father and a few other tidbits. Matthews and Castel trust the audience to connect certain dots on their own, enabling the narrative to drill into what matters: Heather’s transformation into her full self. That the film is loaded with red coloring, either by the sheets on Heather’s bed, her hair, brake lights on a car, mood lighting in a scene, infuses much of My Animal with the subconscious scent of blood, of longing, of a fire waiting to roar. This, of course, is enhanced by time and place being generally absent, implying that what we’re watching is happening well in the past and Heather yearns for a future in which she can be herself. Or perhaps it’s the near-constant snow on the ground and cold temps putting forward a sense that Heather is frozen, stuck, unable to break free due to restraints tangible and metaphorical. This is what makes My Animal so fascinating as a watch, that the tone and meaning are so intrinsically connected to the execution of production so that even Jonny’s character design, from the frequent pink and white in their outfit, conveys some reciprocation of Heather’s own struggle of self-identification and self-restriction.
If there’s one thing that may stifle some audiences from fully embracing what Castel is offering, it’s that Matthews’s script doesn’t always follow the expected pre-scripted path. It makes much of My Animal unpredictable, something which this reviewer enjoyed for the ways it made me lean in. This made the points where the script did go along with the typical track feel like rest stops along a treacherous journey, not so much for us, but for Heather, whom we grow to care for in her quiet, internalizing way to the point that when the script allows her an opportunity to experience freedom, it’s as aching a rebirth as one may expect and the audience feels it, too.
Screening during Sundance Film Festival 2023.
In select theaters September 8th, 2023.
Available on digital September 15th, 2023.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.