There still needs to be more entertaining monster horror, especially in the werewolf subgenre. MY ANIMAL looks to fill that in this lesbian lycanthrope tale of young love. Playing at Sundance Film Festival, the story is less horror than an exploration of identity and acceptance. Werewolf stories wrap them in a transformative beauty, and writer Jae Matthews with director Jacqueline Castel unleashes it with a measured skill that makes MY ANIMAL reside alongside beloved Ginger Snaps.

A full moon shines as Heather (Bobbi Salvör Menuez), clad in only a long, white nightgown, kneels on the floor. The only light in the room comes from the full moon, visible through the softly billowing curtains and the television playing a black-and-white werewolf film. As Heather looks up at the moon, blood flows from her nose as her body contorts and cracks. The reflection of the moon in her eyes is stunning. The film on television talks about love making the man a beast, but love also makes the beast beautiful. Heather growls and crawls across the carpeted floor, only her glowing, full-moon eyes discernible in the shadows. At once, it is terrifying but remarkably breathtaking.

A Slip-Up That Shapes Heather’s Life

Her mother, Patti (Heidi von Palleske), enters the room, but Heather is no longer there. Worried, Patti heads to the woods to search for Heather. Her husband, Heather’s father Henry (Stephen McHattie), right behind her in the desolate, snowy, wooded forests, warns Patti to go back inside as his eyes glow. The sound of a growl and scream echo then the title card appears. The feral, natural beauty of the opening is one of the most gorgeous I’ve seen.

It’s unclear how much time passed between the opening and the next scene. But Heather works out in her room with women’s bodybuilder posters adorning the walls. Chains and cuffs adorn her bed. Castel clues viewers into the past as Heather helps her mother, passed out in the living room, into bed. She pulls off her shirt, and the audiences see a long scar across Patti’s side. Heather is more of a parental figure now than her and her twin brother’s mom, Patti. She helps them train in hockey along with her father.

Coming-of-Age Tale Meets Lycanthropy in MY ANIMAL

Her life is a monotonous work routine, caring for her brothers and mom and fetching alcohol from the store for her mom. That injury changed how the two interact. Her mom speaks to her like Heather has a debt still unpaid. Heather’s close to her father, who understands, as a fellow werewolf, how she grapples with herself. Heather’s life changes when she meets Jonny (Amandla Stenberg), there for regionals in figure skating. As the pair get closer, Heather struggles to accept her werewolf aspect. Like the film she watched, there is a hope that love can make her beautiful.

Coming-of-age tropes are everywhere, including coming out, loss, sexual experience, drugs, and even a hairstyle change. Castel’s distinct directing style and colors make My Animal unique. Lesbian stories are still too few on the ground in genres like horror, which have an array of subgenres. The music is perfect in the film, sounding gorgeous in all the silent moments. The 80s synths sound wildly close to another fun monster film, Near Dark, with a bit of a Tangerine Dream surrealness. If you close your eyes, you think you’re listening to the Near Dark or Firestarter soundtracks. That makes me love MY ANIMAL even more.

Problem With Identity

Throughout Heather’s life, someone is unwilling to accept her identities. The coach for the adult hockey she wants to join denies her because she’s a girl. Her mom feels like her werewolf identity automatically makes her more her father’s child. Werewolf transformation is often a metaphor for queerness, and here Heather is both. Her gender and lesbian identities tragically still wind up being the most significant issues. But you cannot embrace one aspect of yourself while resenting the other. She lives a restrained life, fearing what might happen if she unleashes her passions.

Toward the end, I thought of the werewolf version of Near Dark‘s bar scene, and it does on a smaller scale. But this movie is less horror. Rather, the focus is Heather’s growth. Though the ending felt rushed, it doesn’t detract from MY ANIMAL being a sensual, gorgeous film. Transformation is not only a physical change. It includes reworking how a person engages with themself, and that’s where MY ANIMAL, a werewolf coming-of-age film, resides.

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