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My Animal Review: A Queer Werewolf Romance With Bite

  • Great chemistry between the leads
  • Earnest exploration of identity
  • Really sexy
  • Horror elements are somewhat underwhelming
  • Cheap-looking visual effects

LGBTQ+ audiences have a long history of connecting with horror fiction's monsters. There are many reasons for this, ranging from the genre's legacy of queer representation (however problematic that representation may be) to the metaphorical potency of its sympathetic outsiders. "My Animal," the first feature directed by Jacqueline Castel, works on both of these levels: The monster protagonist is a young lesbian, and her monsterhood serves as a potent and relatable metaphor for experiences of marginalization.

Set in late 1980s Canada — an era of VHS tapes and rampant homophobia — "My Animal" follows Heather (Bobbi Salvör Menuez), a hockey-playing young adult struggling with being a lesbian and a werewolf. Her father Henry (Stephen McHattie) and younger twin brothers Cooper and Hardy (Charles F. Halpenny and Harrison W. Halpenny) are also werewolves, while her struggling mother Patti (Heidi von Palleske) is not. Heather soon develops a crush on a girl named Jonny (Amandla Stenberg), a figure skater with a boyfriend (Cory Lipman) and her own baggage to deal with.

Paramount acquired the distribution rights to "My Animal" before the film's premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival (per The Hollywood Reporter). It's unknown whether it will be released in theaters or on Paramount+, though given the film's modest budget, it might play better on streaming. Either way, there's definitely a built-in audience for this smart and sexy film. Though it's not a groundbreaker for the genre, "My Animal" is a good film with intense appeal, especially to LGBTQ+ horror fans.

One of the sexiest movies at Sundance

"My Animal" is one of the sexiest movies at Sundance this year, which is no small feat. Sometimes, it veers into slightly taboo territory: Heather's bed is festooned with chains that restrict her from causing trouble during full moons, and she's drawn to female bodybuilders and "Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling." It wasn't all my cup of tea — especially a fantasy homaging one of the grosser parts of the classic Japanese film "Tampopo" — but I can appreciate the intense erotic energy on display. Menuez and Stenberg have incredible chemistry, which thrums throughout the film.

The big conflict of the story ultimately comes down to self-acceptance. Heather is on a path to accepting herself as a lesbian, while Jonny doesn't want to do the same. Accepting herself as a werewolf seemingly helps Heather accept herself as gay, but it's worth noting that within the film's internal metaphors, these are intersectional, but not identical issues. Just because someone is a werewolf doesn't mean they can't also be homophobic, as the scenes in which Heather deals with her dysfunctional family amply prove. "My Animal" also boasts intriguing subtext regarding gender non-conformity: A scene in which Heather goes in the men's locker room in the hopes of joining the men's hockey team is perhaps the film's most direct suggestion that she might hold a more fluid identity than the 1980s allowed for.

The horror elements and effects show its budget

As a horror film, "My Animal" is most effective in its opening scene, as Heather prepares for her full moon transformation. We don't actually see her wolf form at this point, but the anxiety of the moment is clear. Notably, Heather watches the "Beauty and the Beast" episode of "Shelley Duvall's Faerie Tale Theatre" as the clock strikes midnight. This is an effective choice: This story offers potent parallels to the film, and it gets the viewer into the mindset of looking at cheap 1980s effects.

Good werewolf transformations are challenging to pull off without outstanding makeup and special effects, so it's understandable that a low-budget indie such as "My Animal" would mostly avoid on-screen transformations. When it has to show something, it goes with a somewhat cheesy but appropriately retro look. Though this works, I would love to see a version of this movie that has the resources to explore its fantasy and horror elements in full. Long stretches of the film's middle section basically play as a realistic romantic drama, with the supernatural stuff put on the back-burner. Moreover, while the minimalist transformation effects work, other moments use pseudo-slow motion and distortion effects that don't just look cheap, but actively bad.

Despite underwhelming as a horror movie, the passionate romance and earnest exploration of LGBTQ+ identity at the heart of "My Animal" are more than enough to make it worth watching. It deserves to find the cult audience to whom it will speak to, and I hope that its potential success will lead to more good things for Castel and Menuez .

Release plans for "My Animal" have yet to be announced.