“Queer Canadian female teen werewolf movie” might sound powerfully specific as a subgenre, yet it’s no longer in a category to warrant that “My Animal” arrives 23 years after John Fawcett’s delicious cult item “Ginger Snaps.” Featuring a sleek, sensitive debut from accomplished short film and music video director Jacqueline Castel, this chilling tale of a suburban outcast whose crush on a seductive figure skater threatens to expose her shape-shifting secret skaters within the genre — touching on young adult romance, animal horror and dysfunctional family drama — while keeping his own identity as fluid and elusive as his wounded, ghostly protagonist.
Played by striking nonbinary performer Bobby Salvar Menouez, protagonist Heather is among the more intriguing werewolves in horror history: a girl whose introverted demeanor and androgynous appearance have already placed her on the social fringes of her sleepy, snow-blanketed northern and Canadian town, whose hereditary lycanthropy is close to her. Seems to be both an overkill and a potential escape valve. But with his conflicted sensibilities sent into overdrive by the advances of the beautiful, ultra-cool Johnny (a suitably magnetic Amanda Stenberg), Jay Matthews’ screenplay spins in circles, shying away from cathartic transformation or confrontation until the eleventh hour.
That ultimately makes this Sundance Midnight premiere an elegant tease — not scary enough to warrant a creepy-head. Still, its dreamy blood-and-ice aesthetic and brilliant sapphic energy will captivate fans of LGBTQ+ genre fare, while Paramount has already secured worldwide distribution rights outside of Canada.
An eerie prologue further proves what horror films from “Poltergeist” to “Skinmarring” have taught us: When a camera flashes on a TV set burning in an otherwise pitch-black room in the middle of the night, nothing good can happen. Walking pale, stern-faced redhead Heather watches a Z-grade werewolf movie, the full moon outside triggering her furry transformation; Before her parents Henry (a fine Stephen McHattie) and Patty (Heidi Von Paleske) can contain her, she runs out of the house in an animal rampage. Henry himself has the affliction, which is seen not as a curse on the family but as a condition to be managed—rather like Luca Guadagnino’s realistic representation of cannibalism in the recent “Bones and All.” Heather has to be tied to her bed before her attacks, while her midnight curfew is a little more urgent than most teenagers’.
During the day, however, he’s just a regular weirdo. A friendless tomboy who works at the local ice rink and wants to play goalie for her all-male hockey team, she has no one to share her secrets with — not just her werewolf identity, which is no more detrimental to her unhappy home life than her mother’s violent alcoholism. But her growing lesbian sexuality. So when the impossibly glamorous Johnny not only gives her the time of day, but seems genuinely interested in her, Heather’s world is positively turned off its axis. She may not admit her supernatural burden to her new friend, but as her latent sexual energy finally finds an outlet, a different creature emerges: Although Johnny can’t quite let go of her ridiculous jock boyfriend Rick (Corey Lipman), she and Heather find themselves in each other’s bodies as they mutually seek to escape from a frozen reality.
Working mainly in a palette of snow, black ice and urgent-light reds, Castell and DP Brian McCashin use swaying, intoxicating camera movements, heavily saturated filters and the occasional juddering strobe effect to isolate Heather and Johnny in their own worlds together as a dark bar. A focal scene of two young women hungrily in the bathroom, the camera snapping up and down and around them, creates a humidity that feels alien to this bitter locale, framed in an otherwise serious, serene composition. The glassy, massed synths of Augustus Miller’s throwback score similarly swell with Heather’s physical tension and tension; The filmmaking in “My Animal” is faster and more frequent than the tentative writing.
“My Animal” eventually leaves some overly exciting possibilities on the table, using its animal transformation as a metaphor for an enhanced libido that is only superficially explored. All that remains is hints of genderqueer identification in our protagonist, while Johnny’s seemingly conflicted sexuality is seen only through Heather’s eyes. Yet even though their imperfectly drawn characters remain largely stagnant, we feel for these two unlikely lovers, thanks in large part to the easy, skin-tight onscreen rapport between Menuez and Stenberg. Menuez has something of Andrea Riseborough’s supple transparent intensity about them; Their unexpected, offbeat physicality is somehow out of time and matches Stenberg’s glossy movie-star strut perfectly. Whether a werewolf or a mere vixen, neither seems quite of this world, all of the small, snowy worlds presented here.