The Sundance Midnight track offers a welcome new spin on werewolves.
My favorite track at Sundance is their legendary Midnight selections, and this year it started off strong for me with a late night screening of Jacqueline Castel’s debut feature My Animal. The film is scripted by Jae Matthews of the band Boy Harsher, who famously met her bandmate in film school. Like Ginger Snaps before, which used lycanthropy for a feminist coming-of age-story, My Animal uses this same prism for a queer sexual awakening that is a bit heavier on the human monsters and lighter on the mythical ones. Castel uses genre and lore to tell a story that lets the audience connect to a queer narrative and characters in a way they might not have otherwise.
My Animal is the story of the boyish Heather, played by Bobbi Salvör Menuez, a daddy’s girl who loves hockey and professional wrestling and manages the local ice rink in her small, remote Canadian town. One day Jonny (Amandla Stenberg), a young figure skater from New York, comes to Heather’s rink with her father to train. Heather instantly falls for the young woman, who is in an abusive relationship with another local athlete. That sense of being an outsider — Heather discovering her queerness and Jonny being a city girl in a small town — draws them together. In a Boys Don’t Cry sort of way, the small town dynamic puts the pair in a pressure cooker as a tragedy befalls Heather that releases her from any inhibitions.
While the film has fantastical elements, they are used to heighten the drama and to escalate the reactions of the characters. Heather’s mom is an raging alcoholic because she married a werewolf and gave birth to kids who are also cursed. Heather has to be home by midnight on the full moon and is then chained to her bed, or else she risks the possibility of turning into a werewolf and losing control. We get the idea that there was also an inciting incident that caused a feeling of alarm and fear with Heather’s transformations. The theme of turning into a wolf also functions as a metaphor for Heather having her first same-sex relationship and coming into her own as a gay woman — or a monster, to the close-minded people around her.
The thing that really pulls the viewer in, however, is the relationship between Heather and Jonny, who have a captivating presence and intoxicating chemistry onscreen. Menuez feels like a young Juliane Moore opposite Stenberg, who does a strikingly impressive job at juggling her character’s identity crisis without losing the audience with her choices. The pair does an amazing job giving their characters a nuanced melancholy that only breaks when they’re together. The tone is complimented by the snow-filled, dystopian-like landscapes of Canada captured with an equally bleak and atmospheric lens.
I My Animal takes the well worn and rather tired mythical character of the werewolf into a welcome direction. The film uses the monster metaphor and its tropes to craft a queer love story that would work both with and without its fantastical monster veneer. Castel crafts this brooding love story that works on its own, but uses the supernatural piece to amplify the stress and motivations propelling the characters helplessly forward.
My Animal is a viscerally charged love story that takes the queer outsider trope to a new height with its story of one young woman’s sexual awakening in small town that will never forget it.