The Animal Kingdom – first-look review

It’s possible to map various different battles for individual freedom onto Thomas Cailley’s gorgeously warm and inventive sci-fi drama. Set in a world in which some humans have started mutating into animals and been summarily locked up in recovery centres designed to reverse their transformations, the narrative trajectory is set in the opposite direction, towards liberation from social pressure and emergence as oneself, creaturely as it may be.

Surly teenager Émile (Paul Kircher) and dad François (Romain Duris) are compelled into closer relations as mum is becoming a large primate. Her doctor recommends that they relocate to a small town with a cutting-edge recovery centre. So, they up sticks with their adorable and supportive dog in tow. Shortly afterwards, an emergency vehicle containing creatures goes off the road releasing them into the wild. François is consumed with worry and – aided by a jaded police officer (Adèle Exarchopolous) – spends all of his time searching for his ape wife in a nearby forest.

Meanwhile, Émile is trying to settle in at a new school, fending off scrutiny about why he left his previous life behind. Nina (Billie Blain) asks intrusive questions, then swiftly and sweetly apologises, explaining that she has ADHD and tends to blurt things out due to her racing mind. This is the first overt sign that Le Règne Animal (The Animal Kingdom) is coded to be neurodivergent friendly. To the cognoscenti, the rest of the film unfolds along this allegorical spine.

Cailley’s generous imagination is felt in the magical way he uses practical effects to render human-animal hybrids. Baleful intelligent eyes look out of a man sprouting wings, a girl with fabulous tentacles, and a character’s daughter now transformed into a plump and ungovernable seal. Paul encounters these creatures with the secret knowledge that he is like them. In visceral scenes that evoke Julia Ducournau’s Raw and John Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps, he rips out the wolfish claws growing beneath his fingernails, willing himself not to become what his body wants him to become.

Anchoring what may sound like a rather involved plot are a triumvirate of formidable and unflashy performances that convincingly sell this ambitiously wrought world. Kircher is a revelation, changing the way that his body moves according to the stage of his transformation, while veteran French actor Romain Duris finds and flexes the most minuscule emotional muscles.

It’s unclear whether Nina is also becoming a creature or whether she just does not register species. Her fledgling, understated romance with Paul is not powered by dramatic declarations, but rather the soft miracle feeling of outsiders helping each other to belong. The power of Cailey’s work is such that the sensitive nuances of communication, that are not afforded much space in more sweeping films, uphold entire scenes.

Although Cailley broadly sketches out an intolerant social backdrop where people see creatures as problems, he is far less interested in showing the machinations of brutal othering, a la classic creature-features such as King Kong and E.T.  Rather the whole film builds to the hardwon release of showing the type of love that becomes possible once you show people who you really are.

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