American Animals (2018) Review

American Animals

Whoah this is a fun movie. It feels very fresh and entertaining. So, American Animals, to add a proper introduction to this review, is about the true story of a couple of American students who decide to steal a priceless book from a library. But why? That’s the question that the movie itself tries to answer. And some of it has to do with that teenage angst of wanting to be part of something, and the big question of what are you going to do with your life. What kind of person are you going to be.

The boy Spencer (Barry Keoghan) grows up in a normal family, with parents who just wanted the best for their son. A typical modern situation of a family in the suburbs and Spencer goes to university and so on. He’s a good painter too, but he is one of those bored and privileged teenagers who start to wonder what it all means. He’s one of those people who would say that “I wish something bad would happen to me so that I have actual inspiration and experience like all good artists”. He’s an idiot, but only from an adult point of view.

The actual Spencer also stars in the film, as do all the actual members of that student group who stole the book. As the story gets told, actors fill in the student roles while the actual people reminisce about what the hell they were thinking back then. With some brilliant editing, these two perspectives of the same events are woven into each other. It makes the whole movie feel like meld between a documentary and a comedic heist movie.

A heist plot slowly unfolds that’s characterized by typical student amateurism and hobbyism. It’s set in the 1990s, when surveillance and internet usage was less controlled and streamlined than today. Growing up in rural Kentucky, they all go on a boys own adventure, breaking free of the mold, going wild in New York. American Animals then both refers to the student gang and to the actual book they’re planning to steal.

The editing and visual wittiness are highly engaging throughout. The actual guys remember things differently from all those years ago, so they contradict each other, and we see all interpretations passing by. I’m talking also about simple things, such as a scene where Spencer remembers his friend talking to a guy with a blue scarf, and then thinks “or was it a purple scarf?” and the color changes on the screen. The film is full of little touches like that.

Once the action starts, there’s plenty of tension and reversals of fortune. The chemistry between the four actors feels real. Spencer actually doesn’t want to continue with the plan, but it gained its own momentum now. Barry Keoghan and Evan Peters work great together in one of those teenager friendships that make you wonder why they even keep hanging out together. Makes me think that Evan Peters is an underrated actor. The actual heist is so amateurish that it is hard not to laugh, while actually being pretty sad and traumatic too.

American Animals is one of the best movies of the year so far. It’s very engaging, very playful, well acted and skillfully shot. Only… towards the end there is a tonal shift in which everything suddenly turns very serious. The end feels like an ad by the government that says: “don’t do crimes, kids”. It would have made a better movie if the comedic tone had been present all the way through, but that would not have been true to the real story. And sticking with the real was clearly deemed more important, but the type of movie that was being set up does not feel suited to tackle that.


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