‘The Animal Kingdom’ Review: A Beastly Disease

by The Technical Blogs

By the time “The Animal Kingdom” opens, the enigmatic disease troubling the world has been circulating for years. It’s unclear where and how it started, much less why or just how far it has spread. Is a virus or bacteria to blame, or is it something in the air, the water, our genes? If we’ve learned anything from our recent pandemic it is that sometimes the most urgent questions aren’t immediately answerable. The big freaky unknown here is why people have begun mutating into beguiling, sometimes terrifying part-human, part-animal creatures.

The furred and the hoofed, the feathered and the chaotically tentacled roam, slither and sometimes howl in “The Animal Kingdom,” an amusing what-if French fantasy with a touch of comedy and some glints of horror. It’s all pretty confusing for the 16-year-old Émile (a poignant, delicate, open-faced Paul Kircher), who’s struggling to deal with his mother, Lana (Florence Deretz). Adolescence is tough on its own without a mother who now seems post-verbal and whose face is covered in fur. Her breathing is strangely labored, too, although she also sounds as if she’s warming up a growl. Living alongside other species has its joys; its perils, too.

An off-kilter mystery that teasingly flirts with a larger metaphoric resonance, the movie follows Émile as he and his father, François (a jittery, sympathetic Romain Duris), navigate their wild new normal. Lana has been institutionalized in a government-run facility since she attacked Émile — the deep scratches on the walls of her room resemble the scars on his face — and is receiving some kind of care. She’s about to be transferred to another facility in the south, where Émile and François are going to move. “We’ve made real progress in deciphering this disease,” a doctor reassures them. Controlling it is another matter.

The director Thomas Cailley takes a direct, unfussy approach to the story, smoothly plunging you into it without ceremony or much background. (He shares script credit with Pauline Munier.) Within minutes, various meticulously rendered creatures have entered and exited, and Émile and François’s loving, testy relationship has been established. What’s also evident is the matter-of-fact attitude that the characters express. Everyone has adjusted to this disordered reality and has taken for-or-against positions, which is eerily familiar. At the same time, because the characters know far more than you do, at least at first, this creates a sense of unease that nicely fuels the movie’s smoldering dread.

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