With the buzzing of tires across the gravelly bottom of a small quarry bitten into a hillside, Austrian sophomore director Katharina Mueckstein (“Talea”) kickstarts her coming-of-age story in promisingly high gear. And when one of the helmeted motocross riders, clad in light, Imperial Stormtrooper-style body armor, is revealed, against expectations, to be a girl, there are shades of the opening of Celine Sciamma’s “Girlhood,” in which a team of young women pummel each other through the exaggeratedly masculine silhouettes of their football uniforms.
Sciamma’s previous film “Tomboy” also looms large in comparison, and later, in the most formally experimental moment of “L’Animale,” Mueckstein pays homage to Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia” when her characters suddenly break into song. Her references are impeccable, but they’re also the problem. Despite strong performances that go a long way to embedding the film in real, idiosyncratic life — and the warm-toned, polished photography of Michael Schindegger — too much of “L’Animale” feels too familiar. Even when they don’t nod directly to one of the category’s standouts, the scenes feel culled from the vast pool of the growing-pains/coming-out/lifestage drama, a genre that becomes more densely populated with every passing film festival.
The tomboy here is sulky teenaged Mati (an excellent Sophie Stockinger, reteaming with Mueckstein), though her blunt features appear not quite set yet, like those of a child. She’s staring down the barrel of her final high school exams and hangs out with an otherwise all-male motorbike gang, the members of which divide their time between racing each other around the quarry (Mati always wins), committing acts of minor vandalism, and drunkenly harassing the more gender-conforming girls they know at the local nightclub. The volatile Kogler (Dominic Marcus Singer) is the mean-boy ringleader, but Mati is closest to Sebi (Jack Hofer) the ambition-free son of a local farmer. Sebi would like them to be closer still. But Mati is attracted to Carla (Julia Franz Richter), the pretty young woman who one day brings her ailing cat into the clinic where Mati helps out her veterinarian mother, Gabi (Kathrin Resetarits).
Gabi is having her own problems with Mati’s father, Paul (Dominik Warta). He’s lethargic about finishing the partially built house in which they live; can it be he has a secret gnawing at him? Paul’s closeted homosexuality is subtly established merely by an overemphatic exclamation of his dislike of gay co-worker Felix (Stefan Pohl), followed by a gently lascivious shot of Felix’s mouth as he speaks. But Mueckstein’s overdetermined scripting always makes explicit the implicit. So there follows a contrived sequence involving the return of a forgotten wallet, in which we, and Gabi, must unequivocally glimpse her husband’s betrayal firsthand.
The metaphors are writ unmissably large. At one point Paul undergoes a long damp evening of the soul, when he’d been hoping for some “Stranger by the Lake” action, but instead shivers alone as night falls around him while across the water the gay party from which he’s literally and geographically separated kicks off under colored lights. And beware the coming-of-age indie that cross-cuts to a high-school literature class in which the work being discussed — here Goethe’s “Blissful Yearning” — neatly parallels the themes of the film. Even Stockinger’s sincere performance cannot rid the moment in which she suddenly responds to the newly relevant text of the air of cliché.
Both Goethe’s poem and Franco Battiato’s 1985 Italian pop song “L’Animale,” which supplants B. Fleischmann’s pleasant electro score in that showy, not wholly successful sing-along, make lyrical reference to the revivifying, transformational power of uncontrollable passion. Goethe wrote of a butterfly burned and reborn; Battiato sings of the fierce animal inside that enslaves him to his paramour. But Mueckstein’s film is the animal tamed. It occasionally captures the precariousness of youth, and the loneliness of running with a pack whose tribal loyalty you no longer share, but more often consigns those wilder, messier, more dangerous instincts to a well-made, gilded cage.