Film enthusiasts are familiar with the concept of “twin movies”– two or more films that share certain premise or plot elements with each other and, by dumb luck or sheer industry cynicism, happen to come out around the same time. In many instances, they’re the direct result of industrial espionage among competing studios, and are rushed through production and marketing in a scramble to get the film out to the world first. Here’s a list of several prominent examples throughout the years. And though this can produce interesting contrasting takes on source material (compare “Capote” to “Infamous”), it will more commonly result in shoddy hatchet jobs, barely holding together as narratives, unable to disguise their true nature as hacky cash grabs. It’s no coincidence that one of the twin films is almost always so much better than the other, and it tends to be painfully obvious which one was rushed through the pipeline.
Then there are films that share very little with each other aside from a single plot element, yet it’s one that’s so identifiable that the smaller film runs the risk of being written off as a throwaway ersatz. Such is the case with Seth McFarlane’s blockbuster comedy hit “Ted”, and its comparatively obscure Catalan counterpart, Marçal Forés’s “Animals”. Both films are tied together by virtue of a common component: our protagonists are accompanied by an anthropomorphic yellow teddy bear who can talk. And yet you’d be hard-pressed to find two other films, sharing such a colorful ingredient, that differ so violently from each other in terms of tone and execution. One is a shock-driven gross-out laugh-out-loud comedy, the other is an understated and introspective look at the hazy cloud of teenage confusion.
The Buenos Aires International Independent Film Festival pretty much consumed my life for the entirety of April. I took up residence in the Village Recoleta Multiplex, where the festival was held this year (conveniently located a mere 4 blocks away from my home), and saw 3 or 4 movies a day– sometimes with friends, but mostly navigating in and out of screenings by myself. Getting someone else to agree to that level of commitment to a film festival is tough, especially when most of my friends are only casual festival enthusiasts, making sure to catch the “biggies” and maybe exploring the fringes once or twice. For me, it’s a bit of a pilgrimage. One that finds me invigorated and inspired, and walking back home every night at 1 AM feeling like I’m floating in thin air. It’s hard to explain, but by the nature of BAFICI, which puts together independent films from all corners of the world, you find the strangest treasures. “Animals” is one of those.
“Animals” is the story of a teenager living with his older brother in a Spanish mountain town (which gives the film its otherworldly, stunningly beautiful backdrop) and seemingly stuck in that awkward junction of childhood and adolescence. He’s a quiet, awkward kid who finds comfort in his music. He feels at odds with himself, fending off the romantic advances of his best friend, feeling unnerved and anxious about his own sexuality, and struggling with his relationship with a remnant from his childhood: a stuffed bear toy who, activated by his imagination, can talk and walk around by his own volition. This teddy bear, named Deerhoof (after the band), transitions from endearing “imaginary friend” to a kind of demonic Jiminy Cricket, tormenting our protagonist with his very presence, reminding him of his weaknesses and failures by virtue of just how much he needs him.
“Animals” is a beautiful and contemplative film that subverts the “teen movie” genre trope and reinvents it in its own image. It starts out as a very simple story about very complex characters and unveils masterfully into a layered, orchestral piece about confusion, doubt, and the dichotomy between the instinctual and the spiritual, the Apollonian and the Dionysian, stark silences and imaginary voices. It’s at times devastating, at times darkly humorous. And though it gets pretty out-there (as it does in a wonderfully executed climax that manages to feel Hitchcock-grandiose), it breathes confidently and never lets artifice and contrivances distract from the heart of the story. It’s an exploration of teenage doubt, and as such it is murky, at times confusing, and deeply emotional.
The soundtrack is outstanding, pulling together tracks from a number of indie and garage-rock bands from Spain and elsewhere. The soundtrack album can be streamed (and purchased in nifty vinyl) right here. Unfortunately, presumably due to the cost of acquiring all the rights, the vinyl doesn’t include all of the tracks in the album. This leaves off a few amazing songs that feature prominently in the movie, such as this gem by the A-Frames posted below:
“Animals” can be purchased on DVD via Amazon. Check it out.