Nothing in our collective human experience has served as creative fuel for art like our teenage years. From the defiant fury of rock and roll to the pathos and drama of films like Rebel Without a Cause to every piece of Young Adult fiction to ever be released, there’s something about the hazy fog of adolescence that we find both deeply compelling and profoundly relatable.
This makes perfect sense; after all, the biological changes occurring in our brains make it perfectly suited for high-stakes drama. The high highs and the crushingly low lows: despair at the thought that you’ll never truly belong; the dizzying elation when you finally do connect with your peers; the simultaneous thrill and anguish of our first loves. At that point in our lives – when we’re first exposed to “adult emotions” – everything feels heightened, super-charged, intense; like nothing in your life will ever be as important as the pain and the joy you’re experiencing in that specific moment. It’s like a concentrated dose of what it means to be a human being; a distilled shot of life. It’s only natural that we would mine it for our fiction.
There are many ways to make a teen movie. Amping up the utter ridiculousness of those years through high school teen comedy is certainly a popular approach. Recent films like Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart have shown that there’s still a lot of life in that subgenre. Other films, like David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, use horror conventions as tools to examine the anxiety and uncertainty of our adolescence. Over the last couple of decades, we’ve also seen a rise in independent filmmakers approaching the topic with a sort of cold, detached brutalism, choosing to take the existential pain and anguish completely seriously, forgoing any self-aware “boy isn’t this dramatic” winks and nods. Philippe Lesage’s absolutely stunning 2018 film Genesis is a great example of this last approach; a cinematic experience that’s as intense and visceral as any teenager’s journal entry.
The 2012 film Animals by Spanish director Marçal Forés is most closely aligned with this last approach, but – much like the period of time it is attempting to capture – it defies easy categorization. It mirrors a teenager’s life: there are elements of crushing melodrama; moments of inspiring grandeur; moments of abject horror; ridiculous, over-the-top moments of humor. All these elements are thrown in a pot and brought to a simmering boil with a generous sprinkling of surrealism, absurdity, and unsettling psychedelia. It is truly one of the most unique and most interesting cinematic experiences of the last decade. The fact that a movie of this caliber has been relegated to the annals of indie-film obscurity is nothing short of heartbreaking.
Animals tells the story of Pol, a forlorn teenager who lives with his older brother in a Spanish mountain town (a gorgeous setting that provides the film with a stunningly beautiful, and sometimes eerie and otherworldly, backdrop).
Upon meeting Pol, it quickly becomes apparent to the audience that there’s something off, that he’s seemingly stuck in that awkward junction of childhood and adolescence, and that he doesn’t have the healthiest coping mechanisms. He’s a quiet, awkward teen, finding comfort in loud rock music. He’s clearly at odds with himself, fending off the romantic advances of his best friend, feeling an increasing sense of uncertainty about his own sexuality, and struggling with his relationship with a remnant from his childhood: a stuffed toy bear who, animated by Pol’s imagination, can walk around and speak of his own volition. This teddy bear, named Deerhoof (after the band), transitions from endearing “imaginary friend” to a kind of demonic Jiminy Cricket, tormenting our protagonist with his very presence, serving as a constant reminder of his weaknesses and failures by virtue of how much Pol needs him.
Deerhoof is one of the film’s most compelling elements. At first, he’s a charming, eyebrow-raising oddity that signals some of Animals’s magical realism leanings. Later on, he slowly leads us down the rabbit hole of deranged darkness that takes hold of the film’s second half as Pol’s own mental health deteriorates. Deerhoof is also, ironically enough, one of the aspects that may have worked against Animals in terms of its marketing and mass appeal. This is because the same year that the movie came out, there was already a thoroughly ubiquitous film where a man spoke to a talking teddy bear.
That’s right: Seth McFarlane’s blockbuster comedy hit Ted was released just before its obscure Catalan counterpart. Both films feature a protagonist who is accompanied by an anthropomorphic yellow teddy bear who can talk. And yet you’d be hard-pressed to find two other films that, despite sharing such a colorful ingredient, differ so strongly from each other in terms of tone and execution. One is a shock-driven gross-out laugh-out-loud comedy, the other is an understated and introspective look at the hazy cloud of teenage confusion.
Fores’s film brings us moments of romance, humor, startling violence and breathtaking beauty. For all its moments of strangeness, it never feels overly ponderous or pretentious. It remains true to the indie-rock spirit of youthful exuberance that runs through its veins (its outstanding soundtrack, pulling together tracks from a number of indie and garage-rock bands from Spain and elsewhere, can be streamed here). It is visually stylish, thanks to Fores’s keen directing and the cinematography of Eduard Grau (A Single Man).
The movie’s themes are also developed by its choices in language, shifting from Catalan to Spanish to English; the characters attend an English-language boarding school, where Martin Freeman plays a concerned teacher. As far as tone comparisons, the closest thing one can think of is Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (the movie’s creeping intensity and violent denouement), or even Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko (its surrealism and macabre humor). It never goes just where you think it’s going, and that’s one of its biggest strengths.
The movie first came to my attention at the 2013 Buenos Aires International Independent Film Festival, a week-long celebration of the type of off-the-wall visual storytelling that only really happens in the fringes of what’s mainstream. And this is what kills me: if I hadn’t purchased a ticket at a film festival seven years ago, there is absolutely zero chance I would have ever come across it. It is now one of my favorite films ever. It makes me think of all the absolute masterpieces that slip through the cracks of public notice. You don’t really know what you’re missing unless someone points it out.
So here I am, pointing it out: Animals is a beautiful and contemplative film that utterly destroys the teen movie genre and gloriously reinvents it in its own image. It starts out as a very simple story about very complex characters, then masterfully unveils into a layered, orchestral piece about confusion, doubt and mental illness. It reveals a dichotomy between the instinctual and the spiritual, the Apollonian and the Dionysian, stark silences and imaginary voices. It’s at times devastating, at times darkly humorous. And though it gets pretty out-there (as it does in a wonderfully executed climax that manages to feel Tarantino-grandiose), it breathes confidently and never lets its contrivances distract from the heart of the story. It’s an exploration of teenage doubt, and as such it is murky, at times confusing, and deeply emotional.
Teen angst will continue to inspire music, literature, and film for generations to come. We should be thankful for that, as it’s those concentrated doses of melodrama that remind us of a time when things just seemed to matter more. Still, I am skeptical that I’ll come across another movie that so beautifully captures the unsettling tentativeness, the emotional whirlwind, and the utter weirdness of our youth the way Animals does.
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