Thirty is a curious age, at once unsettling and perilously close to settled: the first point at which you can see another adult version of yourself in the rearview mirror, and wonder what’s gone right or wrong. Its onset has a different effect on the two hard-partying Dublin girlfriends at the center of “Animals,” as their once watertight bond starts to leak boozily at the seams. For Laura, a self-styled, self-doubting 32-year-old writer, that rearview glance is one she’d rather not take, as she senses herself sliding out of sync with the world around her; for Tyler, her proudly feckless BFF, looking back only emboldens her to carry on as before.
Adapted by Emma Jane Unsworth from her own 2014 novel, Sophie Hyde’s generous, freewheeling film is a pleasingly disorderly addition to the still-underpopulated ranks of female friendship studies — eschewing both strict moral judgment and greeting-card sentimentality in its portrayal of two women with a firmer idea of what they don’t want in life than what they do. Played with fizzing yin-and-yang chemistry by Holliday Grainger and Alia Shawkat, they’re a welcome corrective to the more superficially subversive female leads of comedies like “Trainwreck,” whose external damage mask surprisingly conservative aspirations; heterosexual romance is an option, not a destination, in a film that sees the wine glass as half-full and half-empty by turns.
With its unruly shape and unruffled frankness regarding substance abuse, “Animals” is unlikely to break out of the arthouse sidelines: Its feelgood qualities are too compromised and hard-earned for that. For Australian filmmaker Hyde, however, it nonetheless marks a commercial leap forward from her exciting 2014 debut, the diary-like transgender drama “52 Tuesdays,” carrying that film’s blend of confessional intimacy and everyday whimsy into a slightly more conventional narrative. And if Shawkat is on fine, well-established form as a caustic social rebel, “Animals” ought to be a major career breakthrough for the superb Grainger, hitherto underused on the big screen, as a heroine unsold on her own heroism.
“I like the way you drink — it’s with a real sense of mortality,” a prospective suitor says to Laura, as she nurses a glass of any old white wine. (Sensible-sounding in moderation but easy to accumulate, it’s her default drink.) He means it as a cheeky come-on; to her, it cuts a little close to the bone. For Laura has been drinking, and living, this way for a decade: working at interchangeable barista jobs, rooming in college pal Tyler’s shabby-chic city apartment, and writing a novel at an approximate page-a-year pace. It’s not a bad life, nor a shameful one, but neither was it meant to last quite this long. When her younger sister Jean (an excellent Amy Molloy), a tamed wild child, announces that she and her partner are expecting a baby, Laura is plunged into a what-now funk that Tyler, entirely content with stringless singledom, finds perplexing.
So it seems a sign of sorts when Laura immediately strikes up a romance with Jim (Fra Fee), a handsome classical pianist with a surging career and an increasingly straightedge lifestyle. If he can call off the party to pursue his muse, shouldn’t she? And if so, why doesn’t she feel better for it? Surrounded by loved ones whose contrasting approaches to life — Tyler’s cheerful hedonism, Jean’s domesticity, Jim’s quiet self-care — all seem to be working out for them, Laura finds herself uncertain any of them are for her, yet stumped as to an alternative. Jazzily vignette-based but pointedly resistant to tidy arcs and throughlines, Unsworth’s script shows us a woman as creatively blocked in her personal life as she is on the page.
Hyde’s crowded, spangled directing style, meanwhile, is rich in fleeting sensual details: peripheral flickers of life and joy lost to Laura’s panicked tunnel vision. This kind of bifocal perspective is cleverly maintained by the film’s restive editing style and gorgeous, glimmering lensing, both courtesy of Bryan Mason. Hovering some way sort of clear-light-of-day naturalism, the filmmaking here deftly evokes the suspended reality that Laura and Tyler have constructed for themselves, winding blearily through their circuit of warmly lit bars, dust-blurred bookshops and the peeling, charity-store glamour of the home they’ve made for themselves.
It’s the performances that punch through the illusion, as Grainger and Shawkat’s dynamic turns on a dime from raucous, debauched complicity to savage mutual confrontation — the kind of close, cold truth-telling that, where best friends are involved, results more often than not in hurtful lies being told. Along with its ideally matched stars, “Animals” knows that the best buddy movies are really romances, and no less prone to searing heartbreak. “We will always have each other,” Laura tells Tyler, “but there comes a time when there needs to be room for other things.” Hyde’s punkily poetic film peruses those “other things” with a wary, hopeful eye, finally trusting its disheveled characters to find them for themselves. They’re only in their thirties, after all.