My Animal is a queer horror romance with Ginger Snaps aspirations

2.5 out of 5 stars

There’s a scene in Jacqueline Castel’s My Animal where characters watch Canadian cult horror classic Ginger Snaps on TV. It feels like a wink to a knowing audience, “Yes, we love it, too.” My Animal, clearly indebted to the acerbic outsider representation of the monstrous gender identity of the older film, wants us to draw a line between them. Both are set in an unmistakably Canadian environment, both involve family curses and both are about women who don’t quite fit the gender norms. However, though deeply indebted to Ginger Snaps, the comparison doesn’t do My Animal many favours. 

In small-town Canada, Heather (Bobbi Salvör Menuez) is an outsider. She doesn’t go to school; she doesn’t have a job. Most of her time is spent with her family at the local hockey rink. She’s close with her father and practises goaltending so her little brothers can practise their slapshots. At night, in her womblike room, she’s sometimes tied up with chains.

One day, she meets the rebellious, free-spirited Johnny (Amandla Stenberg), a figure skater held to impossible standards. Both young women form a bond of shared space and a deep feeling of understanding. Of course, though, Heather has many family secrets, and her soon-to-be unchecked desire may awaken the beast.

The film looks great, with its deep reds and chilly winter locations. It uses coloured lights, especially shades of red, to evoke deep passions and barely suppressed rage. The film’s love scenes, which take full advantage of the expressionistic lighting, are evocative without being overtly showy. They suggest a passion that excludes the rest of the world, utterly alien to the towering snowbanks and inhospitable locales otherwise. It feels like an awakening, capable of changing the fabric of reality. The score is a certified banger. 

The cast is equally strong. Amandla Stenberg and Bobbi Salvör Menuez embody characters that break away from easy stereotypes. As romantic leads, they have genuine chemistry rooted in an awkward tension that contributes to the film’s reasonably successful sense of dread. The supporting cast is full of Canadian all-stars, including Heidi von Palleske, Stephen McHattie and Scott Thompson.

Somehow, though, My Animal doesn’t quite come together. It lacks a commitment to genre filmmaking, preferring ambiguous allusions to monstrosity rather than outright portrayals. As the film touches on issues of domestic violence, it does make sense that some of the violence remains on the peripheries, something the characters view as shameful and hidden away. Thematically though, this doesn’t feel purposeful, only accidental. The light evocations of the supernatural offer some richness and conflict but are ultimately treated as an afterthought. 

The film simultaneously feels over- and under-written. The aspects of genre are distracting because they’re underdeveloped. Still, many of the more interpersonal relationships are heavy-handed to guide the viewer toward easy, uncomplicated conclusions. Though the characters stand out as more than just stock tropes, their relationships play out more like a Canadian TV movie than great cinema. Whereas the genre elements could use less ambiguity, the character writing and narrative unravelling could have used more. 

Unfortunately, My Animal isn’t the only victim of the Canadian Film Industrial Complex. Amazingly, a movie like this can get government funding, but in that process, there’s a sense that everything is too neatly packaged. It can’t just be a horror movie; it must be “important” and have “things to say.” It’s clear that if you strip things down to the bone, those ideas would still be there, more sparse and anxiety-driven, but here they’re dealt with bluntly and without grace. The cast helps make it work, but it ultimately feels frustrating: a movie that is too much and too little. ■

My Animal (directed Jacqueline Castel)

My Animal is screening exclusively at Cinéma Public.

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