I am ALWAYS skeptical of Netflix’s estimates of how much I will like a film. There have been 2-star estimates that I’ve given 4 stars. There have been 4-star estimates that I’ve hated. But when they think I’ll like a title 5/5 stars (or at least over 4.5) it’s typically something that I will enjoy. Maybe not 5/5, but you get the idea. So, when I saw that Netflix expected me to like When Animals Dream 5/5 stars, I was intrigued. It falls into a lot of categories that I’ve given high marks to in the past. It’s modern foreign horror. Check. It features a strong female lead. Check. It’s bloody. Check. It’s about lycanthropy (maybe). Check (i guess). So, I put it in my queue. When Wolfman told me he thought it was “pretty good”, I watched it! (i couldn’t ignore such a fervent endorsement)
Marie is a teen living in a dreary fishing town. Her mother is in what seems to be a persistent vegetative state (is that politically correct? it sure doesn’t sound like it is). She spends her nights helping her dad care for mom and her days learning the ropes at her new job at the fish processing plant. She’s having some troubles beyond what you would expect for a normal teen. For example, she has a rash growing on her chest that is sprouting very long hairs (the same place Teen Wolf first finds his long werewolf hairs. hmm). On top of that, learning the ropes at work is complicated by a bit of a romantic rivalry for her attention and the cruel pranks some of the guys play on her. Some of which could easily be considered sexual assault. As she becomes moodier/hornier/more aggressive, her father calls in mom’s doctor to give her the medicine mom takes, which Marie suspects is what keeps her in a catatonic state. She refuses. There’s a struggle, some bestial violence occurs, and she ends up on the run from the (metaphorical) villagers with pitchforks and torches.
When Animals Dream tells a familiar story – the coming-of-age of a young/new werewolf. And familiar stories can be modernized or told with new perspectives or twists that make them feel fresh (or at least clever). This film, however, doesn’t add much to the subgenre. Marie’s experiences – specifically, her violent outbursts in the face of danger – are predictable. To be fair, Sonia Suhl plays the quiet teen-entering-the-confusing-adult-world perfectly. She avoids eye contact, she furtively smiles at the cute guy at work, she lashes out at her father when he tries to give her fatherly advice, and she awkwardly tries pot with a co-worker. The problem is, we’ve seen this before. It’s especially frustrating for viewers since the filmmakers have chosen to lean on the character study aspect of the film. We are studying a character who is already familiar to us. It borders on condescension. (‘hey, dummies, you probably don’t know that teens go through some crazy changes and have a tough time of it. here’s an hour-long lecture on the most superficial aspects of it’) Using slow pacing to build tension and anticipation is a gamble for any filmmaker. Jonas Arnby accepted that gamble and lost. I found my attention drifting at several points during the (mostly) plodding storyline. I found myself hoping the next cruel prank or bloody/blurry dream would come soon. I wanted something (anything) to happen so that the story could progress. Instead, I got a mysterious origin story that simply peters out without revelation and a final reel that features some mediocre creature action and effects.
The Final Cut: When Animals Dream is a character study in teen angst that is ploddingly paced and covers well-trodden territory. The werewolf (or were-whatever) is either clumsy metaphor or poorly developed mythology that is secondary to the indie/arthouse wheel-spinning that leaves the viewer underwhelmed.