Letting the Vines Snap: On Animals (2019) and Friendship – ‘Sundance London’

“Maybe that’s why we fuck things up – so that peace, when it comes, feels like enough.’

Animals, Emma Jane Unsworth

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Through my early twenties, I had a best friend. We were in a bigger group of seven but as part of an unspoken rule we were each other’s ‘emotional support’. Our group was divided like that. We all had someone in the group that we considered our closest friend, the one that was on call for any drama or heartbreak, the one who would back you up in an argument, or answer their phone at 2 am.

My friend and I spent almost all of our time together. We would spend Friday night watching films and smoking cigarettes, we’d go out on Saturday window-shopping without money or intention, we’d spend Saturday night out with some friends drinking and dancing, we’d spend Sunday nursing hangovers and trying and drag ourselves to some pub to gorge on a roast dinner we couldn’t afford. Each weeknight we would meet for a cig in the park or go to the pub and bitch. We practically shared the money we had, when she was quid’s in the drinks were on her and when I was, I’d buy dinner. I went on holiday with her and her parents, met all her family, was witness to all their drama too. I knew their history as I knew hers. I saw her on Christmas day, every birthday, and every major and minor event.

We knew what the other liked or didn’t like, what they thought of our fashion choices and our romantic choices and our everyday choices. We knew there was a way in which the other could see us, a viewpoint from which we couldn’t hide – one that made us feel both safe and scared. We knew what each other’s vocal inflexions meant, we could predict each other’s behaviour, and we knew what would rile the other up.

We argued often. While it was rarely serious it was often enough to stop us talking for a few days before we would resume the routine again as if nothing had happened. We never apologised for the words we said in anger. Friends would sometimes comment on how uncomfortable our little spats made them but we would laugh it off, saying that we never took it seriously so why should they?

We didn’t see the arguing as a problem. We didn’t see a lot of things as a problem it turned out. We became friends when we were nineteen and over the next seven years grew with each other, grew around each other like vines or weeds. We had built our adult selves through the eyes of the other. Our lives were so intertwined it felt almost impossible to think they one day they might not be.

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I saw Animals at Sundance London in late June and I left thinking about her. The bittersweet feeling of remembering felt like both nostalgia and mourning, somehow both warm and cold at once. We hadn’t spoken in any real way since January. It felt almost like a break-up. We’d unconsciously divided up our friends and locations, we’d done inventory on our shared items, we came to terms with the books or DVD’s we might never get back. The last time I’d seen her had been in February when she text me asking if I could drop off some clothes she had left at my house – a box of things returned awkwardly.

Animals is a meditation on friendship and how it shifts, how it can crack under pressure or even under the lightest of weights. It explores the pull of assimilation and tradition, its comfort and ease, versus forging your path and re-examining your desires through the lenses of what society has pressured you to want – specifically about marriage and families. For example, when Laura (Holliday Grainger) says her marriage will be a modern one, Tyler (Alia Shawkat) tells her there is no such thing. It’s in moments like this that Animals soars: in its cringe-inducing family parties, to the nerve inducing come-down scenes, to the tender moments between these two women.

In one scene, Laura, Tyler, and, a poet, Marty are outside a party, smoking. They see a fox, rattling around in the bins opposite. After a moment’s silence, Marty asks, ‘What’s an animal’s primary need?’

‘Food,’ Laura says.

‘Sex,’ Tyler responds.

‘Safety,’ Marty affirms, solemnly.

This, in a way, sums up so much of what the film brings to the table. Laura feels safe with Jim, her fiancé because he represents what her acceptable next step should be. He is safety because he is expected. He is the normal response when following a life without marriage, monogamy, or children feels like the ‘unsafe’ option. The latter being uncharted territory, because growing up we’re taught the idea of doing anything but what’s expected is unthinkable. It was unimaginable that might you not want those things, that you might decide that it’s not for you, that you could see your friendships as something far more valuable than any romantic attachments.

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I read the book on which the film is based in my third year of university, when I was 22 years old, and loved it. It treated the central friendship as a romance all of its own, a true love story. One that has its highs and lows, its peaks and valleys – just as their relationship does in the film. But the book was my first exposure to this idea of friendship as something different. Up until then, I had seen my friendships as something that would eventually end when one of us got married or started a family as I’d seen happen to those older than me. I’d never considered that it would be up to us if they ended. That, if we desired, it didn’t have to end when ‘life began’ but rather, we could keep it… if we tried.

Since reading the book I’ve been drawn to art that deals with friendship. Whether it be the beautifully handled Frances Ha, the final season of Lena Dunham’s GIRLS that dealt with those huge shifts, or indeed any season of Issa Rae’s Insecurethat just whole-heartedly gets friendship.

I was lucky enough to interview the author, Emma Jane Unsworth, for a student magazine in my final year of university (Unsworth was also the screenwriter for the film adaption and we spoke briefly about the project in its very early stages). We met in a café, nestled into the University of Manchester campus. A lot of what we spoke about stuck with me and, in many ways, sparked me to consider my own opinions on friendship, marriage, and relationships. It might sound odd to say, but the interview felt like quite a formative moment in my early twenties. One that enlightened and released a lot of the thoughts I’d held inside. When we talked about friendship and its place in her novel Unsworth said:

“What I was trying to explore in [Animals] was why do some relationships break down when you reach a certain age? Why do some relationships break and not bend? Why do some withstand? Some friendships just don’t allow the people within them to operate as individuals.”

This still feels startlingly true. I’ve known so many people who’ve had friends like mine, who’ve gone through the same thing. As life begins to shift and a future comes into focus, friendships are often cracked or whittled down to fit into that new future but sometimes, they don’t.

My relationship with my friend broke down in our mid-twenties. Distance, when I moved to London for a year, became a factor and we both had to find new ways to fill our time. She came to visit regularly but those visits sometimes ended in arguments as her new life and mine began to encroach on each other. Whenever we argued now the time between the fight and our make-up got longer and longer. Until the last time, we argued when we just didn’t speak again.

‘There isn’t something like marriage or engagement for friendship yet,’ Unsworth said in that café in Manchester. ‘[O]ften our friendships are the most durable, the most enduring, the deepest, and the most complex relationships of our lives.’

That still rings true. A seven-year romantic relationship would likely mean living together, maybe marriage, and a lifetime commitment but our seven-year friendship had a lot to divide up in terms of emotional assets too. We had years of history, of connection, of sharing. We had so many experiences that has passed between us; boys, love, deaths in the family, finding our respective careers, depression, joy, trips taken together, futures we had planned, and it all just hung there, in some kind of void, now we were no longer ‘a thing’.

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No one thing broke us up. I can’t point to a moment or even a day in which I knew our friendship had run its course. Over time, the vines we’d grown around each other snapped, their strength weakened from the lack of attention we’d given to them. We were both released to move on and grow elsewhere.

A friend asked me recently how I felt about her and the situation now some time had passed. ‘It feels like mourning,’ I said. ‘I don’t feel any anger now or annoyance, those feelings are hard to keep up over a long time. I just feel a bit sad. Sad that it’s over and I don’t have that one person who’s always there for me.’

When friendships break it hurts. They have all the intimacy, secrets, history, and love of a boyfriend or girlfriend but without the sex. They hold us up, shape us, mould us. They are part of our creation, part of who we become and who we continue to be. So losing one feels like losing a part of yourself you felt was secure, like you’ve lost a mirror and you can’t see yourself as clearly as you used to. It feels odd that someone exists in the world who knows you so well. That they will always know you and you will know them.

Animals feels rare. In the world of cinema, and more nicely British cinema, these types of stories aren’t often told. Britain, which was once a major exporter of romantic comedies, is now primarily known for grit and violence in its films. The most successful British releases have been franchise films; Bond or Potter. Few are comedies that are as riotously funny as Animals, nor do they deal with the specific nature of our relationships.

Here’s hoping that Animals ushers in a new age. One in which people can see themselves, their messy and complicated relationships, on the screen with a British sensibility. One in which they can experience the highs and lows, the peaks and valleys of authentic relationships, and feel less alone, as I did.


Animals is released in the UK on 2ndAugust. 

Reviewed as part of Sundance London 2019.

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