Animals, review: the perfect hybrid between Fleabag and Booksmart

Hangovers and comedowns: Alia Shawkat and Holliday Grainger - Allstar/Bonsai films
Hangovers and comedowns: Alia Shawkat and Holliday Grainger - Allstar/Bonsai films

Dir: Sophie Hyde. Cast: Holliday Grainger, Alia Shawkat, Fra Fee, Dermot Murphy, Amy Molloy, Pat Shortt. 15 cert, 109 mins

While Phoebe Waller-Bridge enjoys her Fleabag victory parade, spare a thought for Holliday Grainger, the magnetic star of Animals, who shouldn’t have her epic debauchery in any way eclipsed. Her character, Laura, starts the film – as she started Emma Jane Unsworth’s 2014 novel – tied to a bed by her own tights, and that seems pretty standard when you get to know her. She’s a classic, Dublin-dwelling shambles, with a nose for decent white wine wherever there’s a bar serving it, and an ability to party her way through bottles of the stuff, rendering her writing ambitions a bit of a joke.

For a decade she’s been “working on a novel” – 10 pages are complete – while she mainly paints the town red with her best friend Tyler (Alia Shawkat), an American with money to burn and a flat they both occupy. Tyler’s a self-dramatising creature from the pages of Fitzgerald, with a semi-devastating quip for most occasions, a lavish collection of glittery frocks and a cigarette usually aloft in one hand. She’s also damaged – the film doesn’t fully go into why – and they’re locked together in sodden co-dependency so obviously it’s a little embarrassing.

Figuring out how they could ever function as individuals is the main thing on Animals’ dramatic to-do list. Enter Jim (Fra Fee), a sly stranger in a bar who plays it cool and wins Laura’s admiration: he likes a drink – at first – but is just on the cusp of a major career as a classical pianist. Naturally, he’s Tyler’s mortal enemy. Those all-nighters are newly endangered, and Laura is coaxed, step by step, into pondering a more settled 30s, like the one her pregnant sister (a very good Amy Molloy) rather smugly radiates.

The film’s decrepit brand of hedonism could have merely turned sour on us – it’s a risk right through it – so it’s a credit to Australian director Sophie Hyde, Unsworth’s script, and their cast that the whole thing manages to deepen and modulate so well. It’s been shifted to Dublin from the book’s setting, Manchester – where Grainger was actually born – but her Irish accent comes off a storm, and something else is gained: a sense of stumbling in Joyce’s footsteps with the wit to camp it up, like parodies of being Dublin drunkards.

Without reinventing indie style, the film handles the groggy blur of hangovers and the jitters of a cocaine crash with a rulebook confidence: it knows what works. Grainger carefully judges playing an addict so that we get the whole spectrum of her styling things out – sometimes with practised vivacity, sometimes dismally. Shawkat is less ideally cast, perhaps, but her character is meant to be larger-than-life in a pushy way, and stranded in this setting on purpose – she’s trying so hard to be debonair it’s no wonder Laura craves a bit of breathing space.

The pair snaffle a huge jar of MDMA and dab at it for nights on end while Laura wrestles with her thirtysomething crisis – familiar from Fleabag and 2017’s feature Daphne, too – to resolve what she calls her “work/party” balance. It means rethinking her core friendship, which happens when she shocks Tyler (and herself, a little) by getting engaged to Jim. It’s not plain sailing. She can’t help but snort coke and stray with a ruffian poet called Marty (Dermot Murphy), who becomes a lure for Tyler to dangle in front of her, keeping the eternal dream of revels alive.

The film doesn’t make a meal of Tyler’s sexuality – bi, probably? – but concocts a chemistry between these two that’s every bit as specific as Booksmart’s, and rather less cute. It has a serious subject, concerning the yo-yoing tendencies of early adulthood between poles of wreckage and self-renovation. “I’m trying a new regime,” Laura says of her writing goals – a line Tyler repeats back to her later as a subtle diss, when she's merely switched to gin and tonics. Unsworth and Hyde have worked hard to give their scavenging antics all this grot and credibility on screen. And Grainger, so promising for so long, nails this performance with everything she’s got, and deserves to have it noticed.

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