Film, Film Review

REVIEW: My Animal (2023) dir. Jacqueline Castel

Opens Friday, 9/8


My eyes were first captivated by the seductive cinematography of My Animal in the opening scene of Heather (Bobbi Salvör Menuez) sitting alone on her floor watching the 1984 “Beauty and the Beast” episode of Faerie Tale Theatre as the moon rises. Covered completely in by darkness, only two changes signal her transformation into a Lycan: the sexually suggestive way she crawls on all fours toward the camera and her piercing red eyes, like those of a pale rabbit in a dark room. As frightening as the image might be, the film never again approaches the visual tropes of the horror genre with such a transparent hand: do not expect werewolf carnage from Jacqueline Castel’s feature film debut My Animal.

The sexually suggestive imagery of the opening proves more representative than the horror. Somewhere in Canada, hockey goaltender Heather crushes on the rink’s new figure skater, Jonny (Amandla Stenberg, most famous for her child acting role as Rue in The Hunger Games). There is no more stereotypical ice-rink romance than hockey player woes figure skater, and, speaking from personal experience, the figure skater is always the more interesting personality in the potential relationship. The only thing “atypical” about this courtship is its queerness…and its multispecies-ness.

Heather wants to play for the all-boys team, but the misogynistic coach won’t let her try out. I think she is supposed to be talented because in all of the hockey scenes, many pucks hit her pads, giving the impression that she isn’t bad at the position. I’m not sure we ever actually see her make a save, though. Edits of shots in motion from a distance, combined with either a close-up of the puck clashing with her pads or the sound of that impact, give the illusion of good goaltending. The scenes lack a kineticism of the body that one would expect from Castel, a proven and talented creator of music videos, where bodies never sit still.

If I’m allowed a moment of athletic cringe, I found myself unable to buy into her supposed hockey abilities since she remains glued to the goalline with rushing opponents—a mistake so egregious for a goaltender that it would be comparable to a quarterback unable to throw a spiral pass. I recognize that this is a personal hypersensitivity to the sport I love; nonetheless, I expect better from a Canadian filmmaking crew.

Thankfully, the script from Jae Matthews limits us to just a handful of hockey scenes and there is always something more important going on than Heather’s ability to actually play hockey: her experiences of embodying queer womanhood in the face of misogyny, a girl she wants to impress, an experience of normality that her Lycan blood denies her come a full moon.

The film is at its best in the bedroom. In my favorite shot in the film, the two women kiss as the reddish moon creeps into the crevice between their lips, reminding us of the carnal nature linking sexual desire and Lycan. Both could (and do) get Heather into trouble, make her into something other in the eyes of others. And both have a dangerous element to them: sexuality in its vulnerability and Lycanness in its violence. Castel makes this connection difficult to miss with the steel cuffs Heather sleeps in at night on her blushing red bed. Though sexual bondage won’t be found here, there is an unaccustomed primal energy to the sexual energy in My Animal.

In the most memorable instance, Heather has a sex dream where a naked Jonny cracks an egg into the former’s upward-pointing mouth, which she then bites and lets drip down her jaw like blood from the lips of a predator. The Freudian set-up is no accident. Robert Eisler’s Man Into Wolf; An Anthropological Interpretation of Sadism, Masochism and Lycanthropy, a book of Jungian pseudo-research and deeply thought-out bullshit, sits on Heather’s family bookshelf. (Eisler apparently thought that werewolf legends proliferated because food shortages caused our evolutionary predecessors to replicate the actions of wolves in a weird psychological ploy to secure food.) Both of her parents are monsters of different sorts. Her father is a Lycan like her, and her mother an unrepentant alcoholic who deals more emotional abuse than tough love. Heather admits, at one point, that her mother sometimes crawls into her bed and pisses—a story she confides to Jonny and one that complements the psychoanalytic sexual drive that galvanizes the film.

The cinematography from Bryn McCashin makes much of the carnivorous sensuality. The color red filters Northern Canada in an unfamiliar way and gives lustful gravity to the seriousness of what could, in the hands of less careful stylists, be transferred into flimsy Young Adult aesthetics. Combined with notes of impressionism (the all-black set for the sex scene), spinning cameras, and, if my judgment is correct, digitally reproduced step printing, there is not a minute of My Animal that is hard on the eyes. Except for maybe the hockey…

My Animal
dir. Jacqueline Castel
99 min.

Opens in select theaters (unfortunately nowhere local) Friday, 9/8
Available digitally and on demand 9/15

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