Actors Holliday Grainger and Alia Shawkat play hard-partying friends Laura and Tyler. (Supplied: Bonsai Films/Bernard Walsh)
“Although I have come close on forty-nine / I have no child, I have nothing but a book,” wrote a self-reflective W.B. Yeats in the opening verses of his 1914 collection Responsibilities.
Thirty two-year-old Yeats devotee and aspiring writer Laura, the protagonist of Animals, has neither child nor book — just a pronounced fondness for white wine and MDMA, and a larger-than-life best friend with whom she frequently indulges in one or both. But she’s starting to reconsider her own pleasure principles.
In Australian producer-director Sophie Hyde’s bittersweet and resonant buddy movie — based on the Emma Jane Unsworth novel (and adapted, somewhat loosely, by the writer herself) — Laura is brought to life by a spunky and sensual, yet brittle, Holliday Grainger (My Cousin Rachel), sporting a choppy red bob that gives her something of a millennial Miranda Hobbes vibe.
BFF duties, meanwhile, go to indie darling Alia Shawkat (aka Arrested Development’s Maeby Funke), who seems totally at home in the role of Tyler: a self-described “notable broad about town”, as sharp-tongued as she is charming.
Grainger and Shawkat wanted to portray complex female characters who were able to be joyous, alluring and flawed all at the same time. (Supplied: Bonsai Films/Bernard Walsh)
Dressed in a colourful array of funky, op-shopped fake furs and feather boas (courtesy of costume designer Renate Henschke), Grainger and Shawkat ooze chemistry as the unapologetically messy duo.
They laugh as they go to pay for a cab with a persistently rolled-up twenty, and decant the abandoned glasses of wine at a local haunt into their own with practised ease, Alphaville’s Forever Young playing in the background.
They’ve been tripping the light fantastic together through the streets and cobbled alleyways of Dublin for nigh on a decade, with Tyler ruling over the shabbily glamorous flat they share as a quixotic queen; the Withnail to Laura’s “I”.
Laura is a struggling writer who has been working on a novel for 10 years. (Supplied: Bonsai Films/Tamara Hardman)
Their co-dependency is unbalanced by the news that Laura’s younger sister Jean (Amy Molloy), who was an enthusiastic participant in all manner of late-night shenanigans not so long ago, is pregnant — by design.
“Sooner or later, the party has to end,” she chides. “Why?” shoots back Tyler.
But Jean’s decision to settle down prompts Laura to do some uncomfortable self-reflection. With the novel that she’s been working on since she met her bestie (her own, metaphorical baby) nowhere close to completion, she careens into something like a third-life crisis.
“I’m not really a writer, am I?” she says as the pair stride through the night, on their way to get drunk. “I’m a tinkerer.”
Irish actor Fra Fee plays Jim, a classical pianist and love interest of Laura. (Supplied: Bonsai Films/Bernard Walsh)
Enter hunky classical pianist Jim (Fra Fee), who talks of waking up every morning at 5:00am to practice, something Laura is well-positioned to find both seductive and inspiring.
Tyler is none too impressed with her best friend’s new, rapidly escalating relationship, however, nor with her new writing regimen (“When did everybody get so serious?” she wants to know).
A died-in-the-wool bon vivant, she’s loathe to think that Laura is happy to trade a life of wanton spontaneity for coupledom and routine, warning: “Nobody ever created anything in a vacuum”.
Moreover, Tyler’s not too keen on being her best friend’s number three — and, as Laura notes, “She gets aggressive when spurned”.
Novelist Emma Jane Unsworth says she wanted to put female friendship on par with romantic love. (Supplied: Bonsai Films/Bernard Walsh)
Both parties (but Tyler especially) behave badly as resentments begin to stack up, and fissures form between them. And yet, thankfully, the film doesn’t pass judgment on either of its leading ladies, or their life choices — it’s always admiring of their vitality, demonstrative of their vulnerability, and sympathetic to their dependencies (on one another; on alcohol).
Intimate, glowing cinematography and rhythmic, elliptical editing by Bryan Mason (Hyde’s long-time collaborator and partner) give Animals a mildly dreamy feel, commensurate with the effects of intoxication.
Buoyed by Unsworth’s often-snappy dialogue, it’s a film that exudes genuine warmth, even as it grapples with the realities of growing up and growing apart, and the ugly anxieties that come with being a modern, middle-class woman no longer in her twenties — no longer “forever young”.
Animals is in cinemas from September 12.