A Danish teenage lycanthropic affair, When Animals Dream concerns the pubescent awakening of Marie (Sonia Suhl), a girl growing up in a tiny coastal village, where everybody is in each other’s pocket and the single onshore industry involves the gutting of fish. On top of the usual libidinal stirrings and physical developments Marie has more singular problems to deal with: there’s the growing realisation that her domestic situation is far from normal. Why is the local doctor suddenly scheduling monthly appointments? Exactly what is the condition that has left her mother heavily sedated and wheelchair-bound? Clearly there is something her father (Lars Mikkelsen) isn’t telling her, and it seems to have the locals spooked.
Whilst swimming the same waters as the likes of Ginger Snaps or Teeth, this is a much more Scandinavian affair. It’s a slow burner with sparse dialogue and a distinctive gloomy look, all lowering skies and creamy yellowing light. Performances are subdued and naturalistic, and there’s none of the flip snarkiness that’s become de rigueur with US productions. Instead we have something a bit more generous, humanistic and affecting. The adolescent agony is conveyed effectively, and there’s a very real sense of small town oppression, with a terrific scene where a traditional first day at work humiliation ritual bubbles with understated hostility. And whilst the messy transformative business isn’t exactly box fresh, the film hangs on an interesting question: what do you do with a problem like Marie? Whilst the film is largely seen from her point of view, and Suhl’s delicate, defiant performance ensures that we are on her side, Rasmus Birch’s screenplay does not sideline or downplay the villagers’ understandable concerns. The tale could be a metaphor for every outsider status from homosexuality to mental illness, but this metaphor means that there’s a heavy price to pay when, if you’ll forgive me, things get hairy every month. No wonder her dad looks so tortured, he’s paralysed by love and fear.
Though this is Marie’s film, and is built around her path from awkward confusion to outright rebellion, I can’t help noticing that the last act, like A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and Spring, centres around a would-be boyfriend’s acceptance that his lover is prone to ripping the occasional throat out. There seems to be something in the air, and whilst it might not mean much (other than Let the Right One In casting a long shadow), in this case it takes Marie’s story away from her and gives it to someone else. In all three films you know which way the finale is going to go, and wonder how the toothier direction might have played. Although it could have benefited from a rise in heat towards the end and it is probably a little too understated for some genre fans, it is nevertheless classy, smart stuff, and a promising debut from director Jonas Alexander Arnby.
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