There’s a moment from Animals that keeps popping up in the film’s social media advertising: a tipsy Holliday Grainger asks the mirror “how could you resist?” before bearing her teeth for a manic smile. She looks just as much like a creature ready for battle as she does a young woman ready for a night out.
It’s a fitting promo for the film, which asks nature documentary questions like “what’s an animal’s primary need?” between scenes of raucous youthful abandon. Right at the centre of this drama, which is based on Emma Jane Unsworth’s novel of the same name (albeit with the action moved from Manchester to Dublin), is Grainger’s character Laura. The Strike and Cinderella co-star plays an aspiring writer with a notepad full of brilliance but a head full of booze and drugs. You could argue that her primary need is an intervention, and maybe some peace and quiet in which to write.
Laura’s best friend Tyler has different ideas, though, with Arrested Development alum Alia Shawkat mixing life-of-the-party exuberance with a subtly sinister edge to bring this massively bad influence to life. Tyler has problems of her own, with Shawkat showing a strong emotional range when the plot requires it, but she mainly serves as a foil to Laura’s deeply buried good intentions.
The result is a somewhat heart-wrenching film, and you’ll want to yell at the screen as Laura bumbles from booze-up to bed and back again, working her way through a jar-full of ill-gotten drugs with Tyler and perpetually putting off the writing that she so clearly wants to begin. It’s a thought-provoking take on friendship: you can tell that the bond between this pair is real, founded on genuine love, but something has definitely gone awry, sending them careening off the rails in spectacular fashion.
There are moments of hilarity (including some dodgy karaoke and a drug dealer called Chicken Sandwich) and there are moments of shock (including a heart-stopping moment when a pissed-up Laura picks up her baby niece for the first time). The film feels honest and uncensored, and it will make you question your own friendships, priorities and relationship with alcohol.
This central duo of Grainger and Shawkat have chemistry to burn, and the film makes the most of this by having them together for much of the running time, riffing endlessly and laughing their way into the abyss. Both actresses put in powerful performances, finding loads of layers within their characters’ conflicting personalities. Also, for what it’s worth, Grainger does a brilliant accent as the Dublin local Laura, to the degree that the marketing department could’ve run with a Superman-like tagline: “you’ll believe a woman is Irish!”
When you’re watching these women, the movie is nigh-on transfixing. However, there are subplots involving romantic interests that fail to hit the same high notes. While Laura and Tyler feel fully fleshed out, squeaky clean pianist Jim (Fra Fee) and sleazy poet Marty (Dermot Murphy) both feel like ‘aren’t blokes a bit naff?’ clichés.
While both fellas’ subplots serve as uninspiring distractions from what we really want to see, that central pairing of Holliday Grainger and Alia Shawkat is more than enough to keep us engaged. Emma Jane Unsworth’s script is packed with gags, too, and Sophie Hyde’s direction serves up some lovely shots. The soundtrack doesn’t offer anything particularly remarkable, besides that karaoke bit, but you could argue that it doesn’t really need to.
Animals is a loveable little indie treat, then, powered by a thought-provoking portrayal of friendship and two actresses at the height of their charismatic powers. It will make you laugh and possibly cry, leaving you with a desire to call your own best mate and sort your life out a bit. It will stick with you long after the credits, and probably end up as one of the 2019 films with a firm position on your ‘would watch again’ list. How could we resist, indeed.
Animals is showing in Picturehouse cinemas now, and it will open everywhere else in the UK on 2 August.