Marçal Forés’s high school drama about a young man discovering his sexuality caught between surreal childhood fantasy and Romantic adolescent angst falls short of leaving an emotional impression. You’ll remember it as the sad movie about the boy with the yellow bear, but it’s too fixated on teen-aged death fantasy to feel genuine.
Marçal Forés’s Animals is one of those films I should have liked more. For tight-budget, independent fare, it is remarkably well produced. Gorgeous even. Those soothing greens, yellows and reds cinematographer Eduard Grau masterfully frames to create the fantasy environment for the protagonist are remarkable. The soundtrack contains song after song that I could imagine downloading to my iPod, if I still used an iPod. Oriol Pla, cast as the lead named Pol, displays well on camera, even though the role for the most part just requires him to be in his head most of the time. Just like recently reviewed Suicide Room or Still the Water, youth alienation, melancholy, death and sexual hang-ups have never looked so good, but the kind of Romantic (with a capital “R”) emotional vision of the world on display doesn’t move me. Maybe I’m too much of a realist…which I think makes me part of the problem, if I’m following the film’s argument correctly.
Animals tells the story of Pol (Pla), a youth of about 17 who attends an international school in Spain. At least I think it is in Spain. Most of the students and teachers speak English, as does Pol’s childhood imaginary friend, Deerhoof, a yellow stuffed bear. When we first meet Pol and Deerhof, they are strolling through the woods, discussing comic books. Your average movie childhood friend Deerhof is not. He enjoys stories that explore the limits of the desires of the characters. Although he sounds like a Speak-n- Spell, and is as expressive as clam, he’s a fairly good conversationalist, reflective, and plays a decent set of drums.
Pol is a quiet boy, and like the introverted teen male leads we’ve watched recently, we spend quite a bit of time trying to figure out what’s eating him. He’s not going to tell us. His best friend Laia (Roser Tapias) would like to know, as she would like to date him if he’d open up. His other friend, Mark (Dimitri Leonidas) may be kind of a jerk, but does recognize that his friend is reluctant to embrace adolescence and tries to goad him forward when he realizes that Pol has an interest on the new kid, Ikari (Augustus Prew). Or maybe its Ikari’s friend, the suicidal Clara (Maria Rodríguez) who has captured his interest. She shows up in his fantasies as often as Ikari does. Pol’s sexuality is a up in the air at the moment. I’m guessing he’s told his friends that he’s bisexual, although no one labels his orientation. Perhaps Mark pushes Pol in the direction of Ikari, because that’s the more interesting direction. I’ll leave it to you to decide if that was the right choice. It doesn’t take too much goading, actually.
If I were a different kind of critic, this is the spot of the review where I would bring up Freud and the death instinct, since Pol is a walking case study of the conflict between reality and fantasy that borders on psychosis and the emergence of adolescent sexuality as an experience that requires not just the loss of innocence, but its death. There’s a lot of Eros vs. Thanatos pulling poor Pol in many directions. I think I’ll leave exercise of writing the Freudian analysis of Pol for the kids who suffer in college, but I do wish I had access to this film when I was in college as I could have written a very good paper and dropped Schopenhauer somewhere in there for at least a B. Let’s just say that this isn’t the film where love solves problems, but instead causes problems to manifest themselves, so we won’t be accused of spoiling the movie. Pol and Ikari are not involved in the positive, optimistic kind of romance, but the Sturm und Drang kind. It’s no accident that we get a little art history class debate on the meaning of Goya’s visionary etchings; the movie practically breathes 1800s anxiety over the disenchantment of the world.
Instead, let’s focus on who would enjoy this film. With the thoughts of suicide, death, arrested childhood, ambiguous sexuality, distrust of adult attempts to insert false reasons on things, cutting, withdrawal, blood and valorization of fantasy over reality, I guess this is the film for the stereotypical Emo kid. Actually, compared with Suicide Room, the other film I’ve reviewed this month that could be described as Emo-influenced, Animals comes off as slightly more sympathetic to the cause. Animals isn’t playing on adult anxieties that our youth may disappear into the nether regions of the Internet, but instead offers a validation of those fantasies and anxieties and puts them on film. I may not particularly share that outlook, but I’m hardly one to demand that those who really desire emotional catharsis do so without a film. There’s lots of folks who like films that affirm their sadness or who enjoy the experience of melancholy now and again even if they are otherwise basically cheerful, and if that sounds like you, well, Animals will be an enjoyable experience – in a very indirect way.
On the other hand, if you don’t have a paper due and would prefer your teen-aged angst served up with just a little side of hope, you might want to give this one a pass.