There’s no shortage of indie pictures that burrow into the cold realities of drug dependency.
But “Animals,” like the best of these films, moves beyond mere cautionary tale. It is an honest and ultimately redemptive drama of a relationship. But the young lovers happen to be addicted to heroin. While their actions prove reckless and destructive, their underlying devotion to each other remains palpable. Profound, even.
Kansas City’s David Dastmalchian plays Jude, a wiry, dark-eyed individual who seems like he should be serving cappuccinos in the hipster cafes of Chicago rather than shooting up in their bathrooms. Girlfriend Bobbie (Kim Shaw) offers a visual counterpart, blond and fresh-faced but just as hooked on the hard stuff.
Living out of a car parked near Lincoln Park Zoo, they adopt one scam after another to pay for the next fix. How did they end up this way? It’s a question they regularly ponder.
“We’re white. American. … College degree. Middle class,” Jude says. “We couldn’t have been born into more ideal circumstances.”
Yet here they are. And things aren’t improving.
Bobbie counters, “Why does a bird keep flying into the same window?”
The first half of “Animals” revolves around the cunning ways they feed their habit. They resort to modest scams like stealing CDs and reselling them. (Is it a coincidence the one disc Jude decides to keep is by a band named Failure?) Other swindles grow riskier, as when Bobbie repeatedly dolls herself up to pose as an escort — the ploy being to arrive at the customer’s home and then flee upon securing half the fee up front.
Their loosely romanticized existence gives way to more concrete inevitabilities. Their co-dependency and desperation make them as incapable of controlling their own situation as their caged neighbors in the zoo.
The animal metaphor is actually the least interesting aspect of the film — which often cuts away to stylized images of various beasts and undersea creatures to hammer home the point. Instead, the movie gains far more power from the grounded approach to its subject matter, even when that material feels familiar. Dastmalchian, who also wrote the screenplay, spent five years as an addict and drew from his own life or things he witnessed while living in a car in Chicago and KC.
First-time director Collin Schiffli coaxes memorable performances from his talented leads. Dastmalchian (who played a key role in the Oscar-nominated “Prisoners”) and Shaw (who’s primarily done episodic TV) share a convincing shorthand that always carries a scene. They simply feel like a real couple — even though the actors had never met before production began.
Their tangled bond renders the film’s subtle ending all the more devastating.