At the outset of “My Animal,” Jacqueline Castel’s uniquely lesbian lycan horror film, an entranced Heather (a tremendous Bobbi Salvör Menuez) sits on her knees in her white nightgown as a television’s gray glow, emanating from the visage of a full moon, envelopes her. The bluish rings under their eyes deepen, blood oozes from her nose, her body contorts, her bones crack, and her tendons twist. Growling, she drags herself across the carpet of her dimmed living room, before springing free, out of her house and through the woods for an immersive reimaging of a werewolf transformation.
And yet, it’s not solely a devoutness to the genre — the thrumming electronic ’80s score, the liquidy gray-scaled images of trees, or the aggressive shaky handheld tracking through the snow-covered forest, that awakens Castel’s film. It’s the “Beauty and the Beast” episode of the Shelly Duvall hosted series “Faerie Tale Theatre,” that Heather was watching on her television, which grounds us in the charged sensual and aching sexual politics of Castel’s vision.
“Love can make a man become a beast and love can also make an ugly man beautiful,” says the prince. And love is what will fully awaken Heather.
“My Animal,” a grim coming-of-age fairy tale, uses slow building tension to glide us — and the film’s character — toward a subversive catharsis. Through Heather, a teenager living in a remote town who takes a romantic interest in Jonny (Amandla Stenberg), an overworked figure skater, first-time feature filmmaker Castel revives the queer subtext of displaced identity residing in most lycan legends to allow a vicious vision to unfold.
Not only does Heather endure bullying from the local boys, in a style often recalling “Carrie,” her homelife is in shambles, too. Her younger twin brothers find her sexual orientation disgusting, her drunkard mother (Heidi von Palleske) swings between soothing and malicious, and Heather can never leave home past midnight, for fear she might reveal her identity (causing her to even sleep shackled in a crimson red bed). Her only wholly supportive family member is her frail lycan father (a sage Stephen McHattie).
Heather discovers solace in Jonny. Often abused by her coach and disregarded by her boyfriend, Jonny, despite her closeness to the clique of cool kids, is as much an outcast, at least emotionally, as Heather. Their relationship simmers not just because of their shared sense of disconnection, but because of the stress felt by Heather as she questions whether she can reveal both her sexual and physical identity.
That simple metaphorical direction in Jae Matthews’ script — relying on young adult tropes, queer horror like “Knife + Heart” and “The Hunger,” and homages to ’80s movies — offers Castel potent angles to heighten normal teenage fears into suspenseful set pieces. In one scene, for instance, Heather’s night out with Jonny and her friends goes awry when Heather loses track of time after taking acid. As her watch beeps past midnight, Heather stumbles away before she totally transforms into a werewolf.
The wolf scenes flourish with a blurred, madly swinging freneticism veering toward the point of combustion. That explosion piques as Heather and Jonny grow closer together. Director of photography Bryn McCashin soaks scenes in passionate hues of carnal red as his lens captures sensual fragments that rotate with the easeful spirit found in the Grecian conception of eros. A knowing symmetry resides in Menuez and Stenberg’s performance. Menuez is visibly guarded, soft-spoken, and folded in, yet defiantly broad in their searching gaze. Stenberg further carves out a sense of loneliness amid the desolation landscape, which accomplishes the outline function, but occurs in an underwritten role.
In a film about finding the freedom to live one’s identity, it’s odd that Jonny, seemingly the only Black person in this remote, snow-burdened town, moves unencumbered in the 1980s milieu. We’d expect a firmer backstory about her upbringing in relation to the solitude hinted at during the film. Similar to Heather’s family, she falls precariously close to a one-noteness that might track in this fairytale frame, but can leave one frustrated. The town is equally unimagined. That opaqueness, a timeliness designed by Castel, certainly stems from the script’s adherence to fairytale tropes.
At one point, when tragedy strikes and Jonny and Heather are on the rocks, Castel has so many tropes spinning at once, you wonder if she can really bring this all together. You also begin to raise other questions: What is the site of this film’s horror? What does catharsis and release mean for this character? When does the killing begin?
But Castel is an intelligent filmmaker. She spends much of “My Animal” dropping breadcrumbs, such as overt references to “Carrie,” that reels in the audience to an answer they think they already know. She pokes and prods, stirring our curiosity to ecstatic bloodlust. If you’re coming to “My Animal” solely for carnage and gore, however, Castel is unwilling to satiate that desire.
It’s a difficult trick she pulls. One that on its face feels too neat, and too delicate. And yet, the film isn’t out for revenge. It’s searching for understanding, for sovereignty, for a soothing love not in what it can’t be, but in its true nature. Heather, covered in scars, finds that love. Castel, by nurturing “My Animal,” provides an assured horror film guided by a radically empathetic, yet no less brutal touch.
“My Animal” premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Paramount will release it at a later date.