Werewolves as metaphors is a trope as old as the horror genre itself. A person turning into a bloodthirsty wolf during a full moon is ripe for subtext. Within the last few decades, lycanthropy has become with female coming-of-age stories as young women’s bodies change in more ways than one. Think Ginger Snaps and When Animals Dream. Now, director Jacqueline Castel is entering the female-focused werewolf arena with her feature film debut My Animal. With a script by Jae Matthews, one half of the band Boy Harsher, My Animal aims to create a tragic queer love story through the lens of lycanthropy. And for the most part, it hits its mark.
Heather (Bobbi Salvör Menuez) lives with her dad (Stephen McHattie), alcoholic mom (Heidi von Palleske), and little brothers in a small snowy town. Her room is covered with images of glistening female bodybuilders and wrestlers, role models for the body she desires. She works at the ice rink and desperately wants to be a hockey goalie on her town’s small team. But, of course, since she’s a woman, the coach ignores her pleas for a tryout.
Meanwhile, newcomer Jonny (Amandla Stenberg) begins to frequent the ice rink, a figure skater in training with a helicopter stage dad. The two spend more time together and begin to build a tender relationship that feels a little bit like love. But in Jonny’s own denial of her sexuality and Heather’s desire to look cool in front Jonny, they egg each other on in a way that borders on toxicity. Perhaps not intentionally, they just form a vortex of chaotic emotions that ebb and flow like a violent sea.
Oh, and on top of trying to navigate queer identity in a small conservative town, Heather is a werewolf. So are her dad and her brothers. In the world of My Animal, lycanthropy is passed down through bloodlines. And, from a conversation Heather has with her mother, it seems that it’s typically only passed down to men. Here, My Animal takes the subtext of lycanthropy and gender identity and makes it the text. As Heather navigates her growing sexual desire, she must also come to terms with her own monstrosity.
Menuez absolutely shines as Heather, bringing a gentleness and tenderness to a character that could so easily be hardened to the world around her. And when Heather is around Stenberg’s Jonny, you can feel the electricity. Stenberg shines just as brightly bringing an ice queen persona that matches the film’s setting. But, that exterior quickly melts away with Heather. Menuez and Stenberg exemplify a queer gaze, one that tries to break through how we conceive of looking and imbue with an explicitly queer, and non-male, sensibility.
The two stars bring Matthews’ script alive, which is familiar yet complex. There are quite a few films that tackle a small-town queer trying to understand themselves, especially after they meet someone new. But Matthews does two things that keep My Animal fresh: werewolves and a borderline-toxic relationship that doesn’t glamorize or demonize, but rather speaks to the reality of trying to understand your identity. Matthews nails the loving, yet toxic, relationship between Heather and Jonni as they oscillate between tender conversations outside the ice rink and getting wasted with burnt-out townies. Heather knows what she wants, but Jonny doesn’t, and that manifests in a turbulent relationship that eventually comes to a violent breaking point.
Unfortunately, Matthews falls short with the horror and werewolf subplot, which ultimately feels like an afterthought to the relationship at hand. There are glimmers of a nastier film full of blood-stained snow, but it never reaches that full potential. Instead, the film fizzles out and denies Heather any real catharsis. There is something to that, as existing as queer is infinitely exhausting and in reality, many of us don’t have that cathartic moment. But in a queer horror film that involves the fantastical and frenetically builds to something explosive, it begs the question why make this a werewolf film in the first place.
Inconsistent script aside, My Animal is a moving tale of beautiful yet ultimately fleeting queer love with a stunning cast. The stark landscape is the perfect setting for something small yet beautiful to bloom, surviving only briefly but surviving nonetheless. Werewolf diehards, don’t go in expecting a bloody massacre in the light of the full moon. Rather, horror fans should expect 90s synth sounds, gorgeous work with lighting, and a vibe-heavy tale of queer survival.
Despite an inconsistent script, My Animal is a moving tale of beautiful yet ultimately fleeting queer love with a stunning cast.