Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed May 13, 2015 6:12 am 
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Young couple in a druggie love affair that's a lark, for a while

Collin Schiffli's debut feature, which has won some festival awards, is a scrappy little drug romance. It has freshness and authenticity about it, and some new angles, This is familiar ground, though, and a topic that will appeal only to a small audience. Strong points: the male star and writer, experienced Chicago actor David Dastmalchian, would appear to know whereof he speaks. He plays Jude, who lives with his girlfriend Bobbie (Kim Shaw) in a car parked near the Lincoln Park Zoo. The blurb says they're a couple who "live somewhere between homeless and the fantasy of their imaginations." This is nicely conveyed: they are young, and in love. They come from middle class white backgrounds. They seem to have chosen this life, in some sense, out of an outlaw sense of play. And for a brief while, at least (neither the time scheme, nor the larger social context, is conveyed in detail) they manage to live in a thrilling, deluded realm where a life of petty scams and thefts feeding a heroin addiction still seems to them something of a lark. They live as "animals," the occasional flashed nature-show images of actual wild beasts providing a somewhat naive touch of metaphor. With bravery the filmmakers and stars battle with authenticity against the ravages of cliche -- though the action may be hard, despite an oddball and touchingly hopeful finale, to distinguish from other crime and drug stories.

Dastlalchian has lived this life, doing drugs, sleeping in his car, in Chicago. He literally knows this world and the people in it. This is a palpable, almost uncomfortable sensation from the first few minutes. The moment I saw the actor-writer's nervous, furtive movements and his pale, gaunt face, my feeling was: "Uh-oh, this is too real!" This is what I'll remember from the film, and something that unfortunately overshadows his costar Ms Shaw's perfectly respectable performance. When he flits from place to place, scores from ghetto dealers, and shoots up, you're there. Her role is backup.

She gets her chance to shine alone in a few scenes where they try one of their more useful, but dangerous, scams, in which she poses as a prostitute. (They are still in good enough shape at this point for her to get all dolled up and look good.) She will tell the john that her pimp, "Frankie" (Jude) is waiting outside, and she must take out half the payment in advance to him to guarantee the "date" is on the up-and-up. They then will simply drive off: no date. They know the dates are risky in the first place, playing them as pure scam, arousing possible suspicion, rage if discovered, riskier still. In time their illusion of control frays to the point where she looks desperate to the john. Yet they escape and it seems the film here as in some other places is going light on its protagonists, waving them close to danger but saving them from dire consequences. Likewise when they get caught by undercover cops in a ghetto drug-scoring area and they are shaken down for drugs, Jude's roughed up a bit, but they're simply let go.

Apart from the minute-to-minute scam and drug life authenticity here, what Dastmalchian conveys strongly is how Jude and Bobbie exist as an essential support unit. None of this craziness makes any sense or has any gloss without the two of them together, and their love. All this could be seen as a sick kind of rom-com; in fact their first time together is shown in a brief, golden flashback. When he becomes seriously ill and is taken to a hospital, an infected tooth leading to detox, she's barred access to him. The game is out of play. There's a palpable sense the equation has altered completely and will not be the same.

A strong and memorable moment comes late in the tale when Bobbie, having made arrangements away from him to return to Missouri and the care of her mother, is finally allowed in to meet again the recuperating Jude. Suddenly they grapple with each other and she struggles, begging to be released. It's as if just in an instant of pull and release he might take both her and himself back into their former life, despite her resolution and his pledges. And he could, of course.

Animals, 90 mins., debuted at the South-by-Southwest Festival, where it won the Special Jury Prize for Courage in Storytelling; and it has won awards at other small US festivals where it has shown. US release by Oscilloscope Friday, 15 May 2015.

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