[Sundance 2023 Review] 'My Animal' is an Unconventional Werewolf Romance Filled with the Yearning of a Long Howl
Carnal. Queer. Heartrending. For her feature debut, director Jacqueline Castel has unleashed an unconventional werewolf film in My Animal that tears at the heart while shedding a few tears, as well.
Heather (Bobbi Salvor Menuez), is a young adult with a secret; She’s a werewolf. Every full moon, she must chain herself to her bed by midnight or face the consequences. Living in a small, backwoods town, Heather and her family are careful not to make others aware of what she is. They wouldn’t understand. But when the lonely teen meets Jonny (Amandla Stenberg), another young woman struggling within, the two begin a romance that sends them on a journey destined to reveal who they really are, both to each other, and themselves.
As an avid werewolf fan, I’ve seen my fair share of lycanthropic films. Few have been as emotionally ravaging as My Animal.
Jae Matthews’ script tells a story that contains all the yearning of a long howl in the middle of the night. Heather is a character desperate for acceptance from all aspects of life. Her mother, Patti (Heidi von Palleske) is an alcoholic who hates her for what she is. Others her age think she’s weird. She wants to play hockey, but is deemed unworthy of making the team because she’s a girl. Only her father, Henry (Stephen McHattie), seems to get her. Until she meets Jonny, and for the first time maybe ever, someone actually sees her. Too bad Jonny’s prick of a boyfriend, Rick (Cory Lipman) is in the way.
My Animal throws off the chains of popular werewolf conventions. This film is its own beast that refuses to be tamed by expectations. Anyone craving a whole lot of wolfing out will likely leave with their tail sagging between their legs, because a monster movie this is not. Not really. You won’t find much horror here, either. Rather than follow the usual route of presenting the werewolf as a metaphor for repression of a darker, more primal side, Heather’s werewolf instead reflects her true self which is fighting to be seen and accepted by the world around her. Set in the 80s, surrounded by small-minded people, Heather is terrified to be exposed as queer. Time and again she encounters bigots spouting hateful language, an element which might make Castel’s film much too difficult for some.
An intimate longing both painful and beautiful courses all throughout the veins of My Animal. Castel captures that confusing feeling of wanting to escape your own flesh so that others can see you how you want to be seen. Sensual. Sweet. Shredding. The film takes us running down that path of young romance, that exciting danger that comes with first loves. That won’t be exciting to those of you that want a traditional werewolf movie, but for those willing to engage, Menuez and Stenberg do a spectacular job drawing you into this budding relationship. The chemistry between the two leads is pure fire that turns the heat up so high you’re likely to break out into a sweat. If they were to lay down in the snowy setting, it would all melt. These two young performers are simply stunning in their roles.
Though slower going, Castel’s ferocious sense of style roars off the screen in a way that sinks its claws in. There’s a rebellious nature to it that is animalistic and raw, encompassed by August Muller’s intoxicating synth score. Sensual neon reds representing Heather’s lust for Jonny give the film an underground nature that pulsates like a bleeding heart. There is never a sense that Heather is the monster here. The monsters are those who are trying to contain her. Punk. Primal. Whatever you want to call it, My Animal is itself an animal, even if it doesn’t quite move at the pace of a wolf.
Underdeveloped relationships and performances outside the leads that don’t quite meet the bar of what’s needed lessen the overall impact of this otherwise emotionally charged story. And while the leads are hypnotic in their performances, all of the weight put on their shoulders to carry the film threatens to bring the whole thing crashing down due to a lack of thrills you might expect in this sort of tale. Nevertheless, Castel’s first feature is a powerful debut filled with an aching howl that pushes to break free in ways that are devastating and satisfying. My Animal bites deep, but the pain is worth it.
By Matt Konopka