Last year, Boy Harsher, an electropop duo consisting of Jae Matthews and Augustus Muller, released the extended music video/horror film The Runner. Our Matt Donato wrote that many of its ideas are “mere flickers” and that “metaphors throughout The Runner—vocalized or seen—are never hard to decipher.” This shallowness persists in Matthews’ latest trip into horror, My Animal, a gay werewolf movie she wrote and her band soundtracked. Directed by Jacqueline Castel in her feature debut, My Animal’s moody dreams are in a territorial brawl with its small-town realism, which in turn barks and snaps at its soapy plot. Its fable eventually hunts down more than a trite analogy for perceived deviance, but its blend of visual and narrative tones favors the laconic over the lycanthropic.
It’s all the more disappointing because My Animal’s setting is so compelling in its isolating specificity. Heather (Bobbi Salvör Menuez) lives in the kind of small, poor town that’s so broke and boring that it’s hard to tell if it still exists. Our clues to the time period are corded house phones and crackly wrestling on the vacuum tube TV, but that could just be how things are in this wintery border town between Canada and the U.S. Browsing the scant shelves of a convenience store with a single light bulb, driving icy roads in the middle of the night, doing donuts on the snowy baseball diamond—there isn’t much to the content of these events, but they all build a nicely atmospheric sense of place. And the middle of hockey-loving nowhere—where everyone knows your weird dad and alcoholic mom, and daylight hours always seem to be fading—is a visceral place for a teen wolf’s feral coming-of-age story.
It’s also no place for Jonny (Amandla Stenberg), a beautiful figure skater who triple Axels into town like she was spun wholecloth out of our lead’s fanfiction. A movie-star out-of-towner, with a homophobic stereotype of an ice dancing dad and a hilariously square-headed jock of a dickhead boyfriend, takes a shine to the flannel-clad goalie behind the concession counter. Why? Heather barely has a personality, so it’s mostly because the movie needs her to. Otherwise, its simple metaphor for suppressed queerness doesn’t have its romantic parallel.
Compared to the uncanny, quiet, snowed-in strangeness of the town and its sparse inhabitants, the fairy tale between these two never quite clicks. Stenberg and Menuez don’t have much in the script to bring them together and, aside from a magnetic dancing sequence, lack the spark of desire. Yet, by virtue of its filmmaker’s visual talents, they find chemistry in the fantasy. Castel isn’t bad with visual shorthand either, laying out a cold, industrial ice rink with the same simple observations as she does a door’s bevy of padlocks and a bed’s chains and shackles. The closer we get to seeing something as horny as My Animal’s hero, the better the film is: The interconnectedness between kink, desire, shame and repression vibrate in friction-filled images, then resolve in red-lit dream sequences of sexual symbiosis. These otherworldly seductions are intensely sexy. They capture the feeling of falling into someone—just you and them and a bed, floating in space—with the worshiping eye of a smitten baby gay. But we always wake up.
In the cold light of day, freed from the monstrous psychosexual power of the moon, we’re confronted with the rest of the film’s contrived connective tissue. When we leave town, the film loses all sense of self. A drug-fueled trip to the casino is boring. A house party in a well-to-do suburb is jarring. A local bar, with a jukebox full of Boy Harsher and a dance floor filled with hot young people, simply does not exist—it feels plucked out of the ether in the worst way. They all feel like filler. It’s cinematic water-treading; places to go because the honest parts of the script add up to about 15 minutes of screen time. These outings emphasize the plot’s weakest elements and upset the otherwise well-curated vibe struck by Castel and Matthews.
And My Animal lives and dies on vibes alone. When it’s going well—when we see Heather and her dad (Stephen McHattie, the best performer in the film) sharing a quiet moment brimming with sadness and understanding—we’re immersed in a tight family unit that, for reasons that could easily extend beyond the movie’s mythology, has been cast into the corners of the world. One that’s been written off as strange or non-conforming or otherwise othered. We vaguely wonder if Heather’s mom has always struggled with drinking, or if belonging to a family of werewolves exacerbated things. We wonder if her dad’s health problems are due to heartworms. But these small questions, born of intimacy, are lost in the monotonous red—in neon, in the full blood moon, in headlights, in newscasts—and My Animal’s inelegant script.
With Stranger Things synth and symbolism that follows suit, My Animal evokes the kind of confused yearning that’s often linked transformative monster stories with young adult lust. But beyond its fur-deep allegory, it emphasizes its director’s ability to create a sense of place and fantasies that sensually stick to your fingertips. This isn’t a scary movie, nor is it a particularly good movie, but once in a blue moon, My Animal can evoke something elemental.
Director: Jacqueline Castel
Writer: Jae Matthews
Starring: Bobbi Salvör Menuez, Amandla Stenberg, Stephen McHattie, Heidi Von Palleske, Cory Lipman, Joe Apollonio
Release Date: January 22, 2023 (Sundance)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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