Sundance 2019: In Sophie Hyde’s ‘Animals’ the Party Must End Already

Sophie Hyde’s Animals is both a personal and creative coming-of-age story and a satisfying yet frustrating tale about getting left behind.

Sophie Hyde
Cornerstone Films / Picturehouse Entertainment
28 January 2019 (Sundance)

“Alcohol is the anaesthesia by which we endure the operation of life,” said playwright George Bernard Shaw. But for Holliday Grainger’s aspiring novelist Laura and her diet of recreational drugs, alcohol is hardly her exclusive anaesthetic of choice. Animals (2019) is directed by Sophie Hyde and written by Emma Jane Unsworth, adapted from her 2014 novel of the same name.

When Laura meets musician Jim (Fra Fee), their intense romance threatens not only her close friendship with Tyler (Alia Shawkat), but also the pair’s hedonistic party lifestyle. Suddenly engaged and living with Jim, the realities of a strait-laced lifestyle begin to dawn for Laura who, along with Tyler, must accept that change is inevitable.

A story is a brief encounter, at the end of which we are left with only memory of the characters and our own imaginings of what the future may hold for them. This sentiment is relevant to
Animals, a film about accepting that we are not standing still, nor are we able to stay as we are at any given point. As Jean (Amy Molloy) tells Laura and Tyler, “Sooner or later the party has to end.” When asked why, she says, “Because you get left behind and you become a tragedy.” There are moments when the film is less subtle in expressing this idea, but Hyde and Unsworth mix in subtler moments, where a look in the eye of a character, or a quiet exchange between two, conveys their understanding.

It’s unfair to describe Animals as a frustrating experience, even though there is truth to this critique. While neither character is standing still, each moving forward, but at different speeds, the struggle to escape the comfort of the metaphorical party creates a feeling of frustration. We weary of their lifestyle before they do, and we can feel the tragedy coming on that Jean warns about. Yet we admire their reluctance to change, rejecting social and familial expectations and trying to keep their individualism and uniqueness in a world of social conformity. After all, cinema can offer us a chance to vicariously live through the experiences of characters that rebel against the social and cultural oppression to which we have succumbed.

Hyde’s application of the spatial is effective, beginning with Laura and Tyler’s apartment as a bohemian space of dreamers, yet one which we are constantly reminded is firmly within a wider world. Jim’s small modest apartment and Jean’s house are displayed with an attention to style to create a scale of progression, from modest beginnings to putting together a family home. This contrasts to Laura and Tyler’s space that feels subservient to its occupants’ personas and desires. Indeed, the spatial is an important part of the film, especially for Laura, who moves between these spaces. It symbolises a back and forth movement and her struggle to transition into a new chapter of her life.

At a certain juncture, while feeling that we’re stuck at a party we cannot leave, a thought occurs that life is merely time to fill, and how we choose to fill this time is, if our circumstances allow, our own. Laura vomits into the toilet, and afterward, sitting on the floor leaning against it, she looks around. She sees her poet friend Marty (Dermot Murphy) groping himself, the floor covered in drugs. Rising and looking into the mirror, she sees the tragedy her sister prophesied.

If Animals is a coming of age story, then it’s one not restricted by the idea that it’s during the adolescent period of our lives that we come of age. While Laura and Tyler can both be described as adolescent adults, they speak to how coming-of-age is a recurring cycle as we learn about ourselves. That simple look in the mirror is similar to a moment when Tyler, out of view of Laura, looks a bartender in the eye. That look signals a future when the pair will have independence from one another.

This transformation, or a realisation at a point of self-discovery and personal growth, is appropriately simple. In neither moment do the storytellers or characters say anything. Viewers are meant to read and understand the moments for themselves. Here a silent gesture can suffice because the film has earned such moments, thanks to the impression the characters have made and a well-told story. This is especially true when we find ourselves, wearily, urging these characters to embrace the end.

Laura is an interesting snapshot of the creative type, her aspirations clouded by a lack of clarity of mind. In as much as a writer must draw from their experience and the world around them, life is a distraction. As Laura says to Marty, “I can’t seem to get the clarity, I can’t seem to join up the dots. … The world is full of glorious distractions innit?” Marty replies, “Well, you say distraction; I say inspiration.”

The question for the film’s aspiring novelist is how a writer or creative person, in the words of Shaw, finds a tolerance for the “operation of life”. Laura’s choice of anaesthesia enables her inner procrastinating artist, that lethargic and passive dreamer that spends more time talking about producing a creative work than doing it. When Marty asks her whether wine helps her write, she says, “Not really, it makes me care less about whether I write or not.” Here is a character that flirts with the tragedy of not finding her direction or purpose, because deep down alcohol, drugs, and sex, or even marriage, will not fulfil her. One must suspect that value, for Laura, will come through applying her mind by way of storytelling, unlike her sister who finds value in making a home with her husband.

How we choose to fill our time is not a moral issue, but one of finding a purpose that rewards and nurtures a sense of self. The party is no more wrong than marriage and as frustrating as the seemingly never-ending party is, any moral ideas of lifestyles as either right or wrong are absent. Instead, Hyde and Unsworth’s story emphasises that living life is learning about oneself and synchronising a lifestyle with the needs of one’s personality.

A work that features a feminist dialogue voiced predominantly by Tyler, Animals remains a story about creative expression. Unlike Laura, who finds a means to not care whether she writes or not, for the audience her experiences mean something more. Her story conveys the naïveté to think that simply speaking about doing something, or half-heartedly trying, can subvert the aspirational dream’s mortality. When Laura meets Jim and witnesses the dedication to his craft, there is a look in her eye. She realises the work, the commitment it takes to create and develop one’s creative voice. Whether she realises it in this way or not cannot be said, but we can read it as an acknowledgment that creativity is not a right, but a hard-earned privilege.

Animals weaves a touching story of friendship around its themes and ideas, but it’s not without its darker shades. Two friends that have become too dependent on one another, the pair are indifferent towards society and other people’s expectations of them. Tyler vicariously lives through Laura’s creative procrastination, using her creative aspiration to give their refusal to grow up an artistic integrity or imperative. She is impeded by her relationship with Tyler, whose encouragement of the anaesthesia of alcohol and drugs makes us see Laura as an aspiring writer lost in immature indifference, towards society, and her craft.

There is a romantic reputation of writers as indifferent, angry, or rebellious, hard-living souls, and Hyde and Unsworth touch upon this archetypal impression for their character. Animals is no necessarily about Laura’s naïve belief in the sustained daydream, of her and Tyler remaining in this bubble they have created for themselves. Rather, it is a reading that we can project on to a film that is both a personal and creative coming of age story and a satisfying yet frustrating tale about avoiding tragedy.

RATING 7 / 10