Editor’s Note: Animals opens in limited release tomorrow, May 15th.
Two twenty-somethings, homeless, addicted to heroin and very much devoted to each other, survive on theft and grifting in Collin Schiffli’s Animals, a warm and touching look at love in trying times. Written by David Dastmalchian, who also stars as Jude, Animals is sensitive and compassionate, but also very much grounded in reality. Jude and Bobbie (Kim Shaw) enjoy the alleged freedom their life gives them, while remaining blissfully unaware that their happiness comes at a cost that others pay, others like the store owners, security guards and newly-married couples they steal from.
Two twenty-somethings, homeless, addicted to heroin and very much devoted to each other, survive on theft and grifting in Collin Schiffli’s Animals.
The film doesn’t necessarily play fair with this conceit, however. Everyone they grift is either not shown, rendering them essentially nonexistent, or portrayed with the requisite crooked halos to make their victimhood seem justified, especially in comparison to the quirky and good-looking young couple we’ve come to know. That said, Bobbie and Jude aren’t necessarily likeable, especially in the moments when they muse that they should have benefited from America’s default safety net for white, middle-class kids like themselves. “What happened?” they ask, unaware of the people of color in the same circumstances as they are, always lingering in the background, and always faring much worse.
Again, though, Animals pulls back, stopping just short of making what could have been an interesting and insightful point. Not only that, but the film seems to have gone to great lengths to cast literally all of the responsible, compelling, warm characters as white, while almost all of the dangerous folks who seem hell-bent on hurting Bobbie and Jude are people of color. In some cases, especially with the health workers Jude finds himself amongst after he lands in the hospital, the characters are so broadly written they’re stereotypes. These bad people are meant to be the real “animals” of the film, of course, a comparison that is flatly awful in its implications.
Dastmalchian manages frightening authenticity in his role, not just in physical appearance, but in portraying the casual selfishness and intensity of an addict.
As a love story, however, Animals is compelling and lovely to look at, almost allegorical in its storytelling. The performances from both Shaw and Dastmalchian are impressive. Shaw’s turn as Bobbie is at once expansive and nuanced, always hitting the exact right tone. Dastmalchian manages frightening authenticity in his role, not just in physical appearance, but in portraying the casual selfishness and intensity of an addict.
One can’t help but have a little admiration for the can-do spirit of Jude and Bobbie, who, at least for a while, make homelessness look not only workable but appealing. Naturally, things quickly slide out of their control, starting with the exact sort of health problems you would expect in people without access to running water or health care. Inexplicably, however, Animals forgets Bobbie’s vague-yet-worrying health problem that threw the couple into panic early in the film; its complete disappearance from the narrative is jarring and even a little upsetting, especially since Jude’s health issues seem to subsume Bobbie’s. There’s no metaphor or even explanation here, just apparently a hiccup in the script.
As their situation declines, the pair contemplate some heinous acts, just to get a little cash so they can score more heroin. By the time Jude and Bobbie reach the limits of their unethical behavior, however, the film’s good-kids-gone-wrong approach feels wholly unearned, in part because the film, probably unintentionally, implies that the “others” they have kept in the background throughout the film wouldn’t have had the same crisis of ethics. Jude and Bobbie are different, Animals says. They’re special, they’re human, and therefore worth knowing. It’s unfortunate that the film didn’t have the guts to declare that humanity can belong to more than pretty, white, middle-class kids who are down on their luck.
Animals is compelling and lovely to look at, almost allegorical in its storytelling.