While frequently alluring in its exploration of desire and identity, this horror as metaphor tale has a bark more impactful than its bite.

There is something initially arresting about My Animal, the feature debut from director Jacqueline Castel and writer Jae Matthews, that feels like it could have all the makings to be a sleeper hit at a festival like Sundance. After all, weaving a supernatural tale into a story that contains more personal reflections have made films that premiered there in the past into real standouts. Further working in its favor is that it has a compelling leading duo in Bobbi Salvör Menuez and Amandla Stenberg, who have a real chemistry with each other that infuses even the simplest of scenes with a real spark. That they are in a story about love, hockey, and, yes, werewolves, sounds like it could be something really special. There may be those that end up discovering this film and get wrapped up in the cold corner of the nondescript Canadian town where it is set. Alas, for every moment where it seems to find an edge like the skaters we see zooming around the ice, there are too many others where it begins to stumble and fall.

From the moment that we first meet the aspiring hockey goalie Heather (Menuez) and get a glimpse of the “beast” that is buried deep inside her, the film makes explicit how this is more than just a literal story about werewolves. Where past horror films can be read as metaphors for various other ideas, My Animal is one that makes itself rather explicit in a manner that should have been refreshing, though it just never quite gets there. The most intriguing aspects come in how it is a work about desire that, in Heather’s case, she is told repeatedly must be repressed for her own safety and those around her. At moments, it feels like it is gesturing at a work like 2016’s Raw, though without the same bite.

Believing she must hide a fundamental part of herself and her sexuality as a closeted queer woman from almost everyone, she is beginning to discover that this may drain her of all passion for life. This gets brought to the forefront when she meets the figure skater Jonny (Stenberg) and begins going out late at night. In the darkness of this isolated winter world that is frequently bathed in neon light and set to an electronic score that would make Nicolas Winding Refn take notice, Heather begins a fraught journey of self-discovery that will fundamentally alter her life as she knows it.

My Animal Bobbi Salvör Menuez
Image via Sundance

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The problems that it then runs into primarily stem from how, for all the more potentially interesting ideas it plays around with, it is oddly restrained in a manner that is hard to shake. While some of this is by design, with Jonny representing a fantasy in Heather’s mind more than anything at several moments, there are still many instances where it feels far too slight in its storytelling. Rather than painting a full portrait, it resembles more of a sketch at key junctures. It can be endearing in a cheesy sense, like when Jonny and Heather take a Zamboni ride together, though there is a lack of interiority to many of the characters. The sketches we get of them are often beautiful to behold, with many dream sequences effectively capturing the evocative and almost ethereal way desire can play out in the psyche, though there was a hunger for more. In particular, the way the story treats Jonny leaves little sense of what is going on underneath the surface of a life that is built around only a handful of scenes.

When a contrived conflict arises and leaves Heather uncertain about where they stand, the audience is left in the dark right there along with her. It takes the romance the two were building and makes it into something lacking in dimension. Further working against it is that, when not pining after Jonny, the relationship Heather has with her family at home is not particularly well-realized either. There are moments that feel like echoes of Let the Right One In, but it lacks the same patience to let the darkness take hold of you. It all comes across as safe and predictable without any greater sense of who these people are. Again, much of this is tied to how Heather is wanting to discover who she is as an independent person outside of her family, but it also means the characters feel a bit flat. Her mother is struggling with alcoholism, which makes her prone to outbursts at her family. This is first heard in the muffled shouting taking place behind closed doors that will eventually burst free, though that too feels like a surface-level detail than it does an actually explored character trait.

Bobbi Salvör Menuez My Animal
Image via Sundance

The relationship that she has with her father is slightly more developed, with one melancholic conversation under the moon proving to be a standout in how patient and poetic it feels in comparison to everything else. It gives Heather a glimpse of what her life will look like and, at the same time, a way out for her own survival that will still require immense sacrifice. Unfortunately, it is all too fleeting to leave the mark that it is reaching for.

There is plenty of merit to the performances and large parts of its eye for visuals that make it impossible to dismiss entirely. The tragedy then becomes that its scattered story does not provide the foundation that one would hope for with a work like this. It may very well generate greater discussions that tease out some of its complexities and deeper ideas. However, there is just not enough in the final vision that proves sufficiently engaging as it ambles from one scene to the next. For all the promise it showed, My Animal doesn’t capitalize on the rich potential of this genre tale and leaves little sense of who its characters are beyond the broad strokes.

Rating: C

My Animal debuted at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

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