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By all outward appearances, Pol (Oriol Pla), is just an average teenager.  Living with his brother in the countryside, Pol rides his bike to school every day where he struggles to understand who he really is and where he fits in.

Animals is the first feature film of Marçal Forés and after seeing it, I’m excited to know he’s at the beginning of what will hopefully be a long career.

animals_2The film’s dark narrative is stippled with elements of the fantastic – a teddy bear named “Deerhoof” is Pol’s best friend.  Deerhoof can walk and talk, albeit in an English speaking computerized  voice that even Pol finds odd.

From the moment Deerhoof is shown onscreen, there is a feeling of strangeness, of wondering how much of what you’re seeing is real or just conjured by Pol.  Is Deerhoof just Pol’s imaginary friend or is he more?  In this way, the filmmakers challenge their audience to consider realities and possibilities, to remember their own youthful imaginations.  For Pol, Deerhoof is as real as his older brother, Llorenç (Javier Beltrán).

The relationship between the brothers is powerfully complicated.  Seen as a sort of sell out for becoming a police officer, the meek Pol still cannot find the strength to say or do anything that conflicts with the wishes or will of his brother.  Pol stands idly by one evening, watching through a window, as his brother digs a hole and buries Deerhoof in the back yard.  Part of him clearly happy someone has done the deed for him.  Part of him clearly despondent, thinking of Deerhoof being buried alive.

Deerhoof comes to represent everything about Pol that he wants to sequester from the world.  When he meets a handsome school newcomer named Ikari (Augustus Prew),animals_3 Pol is at once excited and terrified by him.  Pol’s pushy friend Marc (Dimitri Leonidas) immediately senses the attraction and takes every opportunity to dig in about Pol’s failure to approach him.

This dynamic between Pol and his friends, Marc and Laia (Roser Tapias), is reminiscent of other teen dramas where attraction and curiosity weave dangerously to create an anything-could-happen atmosphere.  Confused, or perhaps made nervous, by his attraction to Ikari, Pol begins to lash out in the only way he knows how.  He takes Deerhoof to the center of a tall bridge, ties him to a rock, and pushes him over.

This moment in Animals is  singularly powerful.
As Pol struggles in the chaotic landscape that stands between childhood and manhood, imagination and reason, he feels he must kill all that represents his youth, innocence, imagination, his safety.  Pol has projected all of these things onto Deerhoof, an entity that is so real to him it walks and talks and holds him when he cries.  What’s so dramatic and disconcerting about this moment, as Pol topples the rock onto which Deerhoof is tied into the watery depths below, is that, even for the audience, it can feel like a type of murder, a type of death.  We know that Pol isn’t necessarily moving into a better part of his life, even with the promise of love awaiting him.

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With Deerhoof at the bottom of the lake, an unfamiliar sense of liberty overcomes Pol.  He pursues Laia and Ikari, trying them both on to see which will fit.  Amidst a string of strange events and an inexplicable death, Pol soon learns it takes more than just desire to grow up.  But, how far will Pol be able to go?

Pla’s performance is strong in the role of Pol, interjecting a mix of sensitivity and curiosity that creates a character that is richly complicated and interesting rather than weak.  Featuring a great international soundtrack the film also stars Martin Freeman as Albert, a professor at St. James High School where Pol and his friends attend school.

Aspects of Animals are bound to be seen as controversial.  I see them as timely. Animals attempts to disclose the realities of life for today’s youth in a sensitive and direct way without shying away from the pain often associated with it.  In this way, the film is occasionally brutal not only for its cast of characters but also for its audience.

The pacing is oft times lethargic, reflecting Pol’s general indecisiveness and a sense of youthful timelessness, of expanding possibilities.  The end result is a strange and poetic film focusing on that moment in our lives when opposing forces collide and we are left in the middle.

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Official site: Animals

 

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