Troubled teens and a talking teddy bear populate the bizarre world of “Animals,” Catalan helmer Marcal Fores’ shimmering, ambitious debut. This stylishly wrought item shuttles between fantasy and realism a la “Donnie Darko” in its exploration of its protag’s problematic emotional life, although too much of the lead character’s delicate, self-regarding preciousness spills over into the film itself. But while the last half-hour has an anything-goes air, there’s still enough verve and quality in the early reels — including some wonderfully dreamy atmospherics — to suggest that Fores is one to watch. Limited fest pickups are likely.
Pol (Oriol Pla) is a shy, insecure teen who’s finding it hard to grow up; he still has conversations with his childhood imaginary friend, Deerhoof, an animatronic yellow teddy bear with a computer-generated voice. A mean guitarist (Deerhoof plays along on the drums), Pol lives with his cop brother, Llorenc (Javier Beltran), whom he hates, and attends a well-to-do English-language school where he hangs out with other loners — mainly his best friend, Laia (Roser Tapias), who fancies him, and irritating Mark (Brit thesp Dimitri Leonidas). The only adult in their world, and indeed the only adult with a speaking role, is the kids’ kindly literature teacher, Albert (Martin Freeman).
Having told Pol that it’s time he put aside the bear, Llorenc buries Deerhoof. But the teen, feeling the bear deserves a decent send-off, digs him up, ties him to a stone and drops him off a bridge into the river. There’s no splash, a significant yet subtle detail.
Pol is now free to explore the issue of whether he prefers men or women, which he does by experimenting with the similarly intense Ikari (Augustus Prew), a dangerously seductive self-harmer. Though the pic’s energy flags after an hour, things liven up again in a dark, twisted denouement that Todd Solondz might have dreamed up.
The catch-all title suggests that Fores will stuff the film with big-statement animal symbolism, and he duly does. There are real animals, stuffed animals, people behaving like animals, animals behaving like people, and animal instincts, all mixed up interestingly if not always coherently. In the hands of a less skilled helmer, these bestial shenanigans would have been risible, and yet the film never is.
No one here is quite as interesting as the ever-optimistic Deerhoof, dishing out advice to his miserable owner; likewise, none of the relationships are as involving as the one between Pol and the bear. Though plausible in their insecurities, these emotionally fragile adolescents are indistinguishable from too many others; while Pla does supply Pol with the appropriate miserablism, the character’s just not that interesting beneath his beautiful surface.
Lenser Eduard Grau does fine work, allowing the forest and lakeside settings to ironically evoke the kind of perfect childhood that Pol definitively lacks. Still, tracking shots of disaffected adolescents wandering along airy corridors smack too obviously of Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant,” which “Animals” knowingly references, along with the comicbooks and Goya sketches that fill the protag’s imagination.