Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel)
What a thrill it is to experience a first-rate cast serving up one of Canada’s finest ensemble pieces in years. It should probably come as no surprise. With her latest film The Animal Project, Ingrid Veninger (Modra, I am a good person, I am a bad person), the whirling-est-dervish director of independent cinema in our fair Dominion, successfully explodes all (well, most) pre-conceptions anyone (well, mostly me, probably) might ever harbour with respect to movies all about the love, pain and touchy-feely twee gymnastics actors go through on and off stage. In fact, being a fan of all of Veninger’s ebullient coffee-cream-Cassavetes-like pictures to date, I’ll admit to feeling terrified that I’d even have to see it.
How will I ever forget that telltale aroma of putrescence as it wafted past my keenly attuned olfactory system? A mere trace of the lingering flatus, like some gently offensive perpetual mist in the dank hallways of a hooker hotel, did cruelly signal to me that The Animal Project was about – ugh! – actors. ‘Twas enough to render me apoplectic.
I immediately imagined a grotesque gag-me-with-a-large-wooden-spoon Toronto hipster vision of some insubstantial pageant, one of which dreams – nay, nightmares – are made of, one in which I’d have to nail my feet to the floor to keep watching, one wherein the potentially preferable choice would be to round my little life with one good mega-snooze.
I’m glad I did not succumb to this preconception. In fact, within seconds of the picture’s unspooling, I was hooked (line and sinker), realizing I was in for something far more substantial and downright entertaining. Actors at its centre or not, Veninger has crafted a movie that’s rooted firmly in the ‘all the world’s a stage’ territory and in the idea that actors, as indelibly written by Canada’s poetess laureate of guerrilla-warfare-as-cinema, are living, breathing human beings with all the challenges anyone faces – no matter who they are or what they do. It is, happily, no stretch to declare that all the glorious men and women of The Animal Project are players on the stage of life, though like all of humanity, they are no ‘mere’ players.
Leo (Aaron Poole) is a Toronto acting teacher in the midst of several life challenges. On the professional front, he feels like he’s not adequately breaking through the barriers his adult students have set up for themselves. As actors they must discover those inner sparks within their own emotions to freely render performances that will evoke the sort of truth that must not only be their stock in trade but also eventually become almost second nature. Leo appears exasperated by his students’ progress or lack thereof, though he doesn’t overtly blame any of them for their less-than-heartfelt efforts. The endless exercises he puts them through are not only boring him, but his acting students too and they are predictably resorting to self-indulgence and/or mind-numbing inconsequence.
Whatever the problem, he feels he’s to blame.
On the home front, Leo’s a single dad trying to raise Sam (Jacob Switzer), his 17-year-old son who seems to get more distant by the second. The kid means the world to him, but here, on the stage of hearth and home, Leo continues to express self-doubt – if not in words, then by his actions. As a dad, he’s clutching onto a slender thread and feels it could snap at any moment. For his part, Sam’s skipping classes, having ever-later starts to his days and sucking back doobies as if he’s sensing an impending worldwide shortage of bud. He works prodigiously on his music, though his practising feels more like an assault upon his dad’s need for quiet and solitude. Neither seems to understand the other, but as such, they might understand each other all too well.
Ain’t it always the way with parents and their kids? The trick is to make sure the twain shall meet. That, however, is always easier said than done.
On a strictly personal front, Leo’s looking for something but damned if he knows what it is. He carries the weight of his search into everything and it especially rears its head in the acting class in the form of a clearly adversarial relationship twixt himself and the cynical, laconic Saul (Joey Klein), evidently the most promising of the bunch. It’s in this relationship that the viewer is gob-smacked with the realization that Klein and Poole are delivering exactly the kind of performances that keep one riveted to the screen.
Quite often, these two actors hit you right in the solar plexus, knocking the wind out of your proverbial sails and connecting with every nerve ending within your body and soul. As actors, they surely kissed the ground their writer walked upon for generating these characters. The intense loggerheads Sam and Saul find themselves at have clearly been building for some time. There’s something unanswered, unacknowledged between them, and we sense it has to eventually explode beyond the verbal and psychological. Like with all human animals it might need to get physical. They are, after all, both tough-minded sons of bitches. Fists might be the way to settle things, but then again, maybe not.
Maybe someone needs a hug.
I kid you not. As ludicrous (and twee-ishly sickening) as this may seem on the page, it makes perfect sense within the world of the film. Leo, for instance, once made a film with his son when Sam was just a child. In it, the kid was dressed in a bunny suit and wandering through the more groove-ola streets of Toronto, offering, uninhibitedly, hugs to total strangers. Hey, don’t knock inspiration. It’s usually just around the corner, but we’ve got to grab it for dear life.
And WHAT inspiration! This might just be the acting exercise the doctor ordered. Inspired by a dream, his old film, and by extension, his relationship with Sam, Leo wants his class to don animal masks and full body costumes, then go out into the world and offer, you guessed it, hugs. The potential for all inhibitions to break down on a professional, personal and just plain human level seems – possibly – within reach.
Wouldn’t it be grand if life were so simple?
We see here the sheer, astonishing brilliance of Veninger’s writing. It’s this very basic premise, which yields several layers of complexity and narrative flesh, that eventually gives way to a multitudinous amount of tissue and viscera. This goes well beyond mere skin-deep, but takes all the characters, and the film’s audience, deep into the bone marrow.
Though Leo, Sam and Saul are the film’s prime connective tissue, it’s all linked to a varied number of interesting, cool and recognizable characters. We’re treated to the journeys of the young man caring for his dying father (Emmanuel Kabongo), the wisecracking lesbian shielding the hurt of being dumped (Jessica Greco), the great-waste-of-life desk-job gent (Johnathan Sousa), who needs not only to act but find love, the lass from Kelowna (Sarena Parmar) who declares she wants to be an actress, but does so with a question mark at the end of her not-so convincing attestation. She probably needs to embrace the girl out of Kelowna by acknowledging she can’t take the Kelowna out of the girl. Last, but certainly not least, we also become intimate with the tall drink of water thespian (Hannah Cheesman) who, armed with an array of technically sound accents and a voluminous collection of auditions for awful TV shows, displays technical proficiency but hides the true talent lurking within and, perhaps most of all, the real person.
Veninger’s script juggles this multi-character drama with considerable skill, and as a director her fly-on-the-wall perspective is astonishingly natural. In addition to a superb production design that’s as much about character and emotion as it is about looking impeccably rendered, the film’s visual gifts are plentiful. The picture is gorgeously shot and Veninger maintains a relatively strict adherence as to where the camera always needs to be in terms of telling the tale visually (though with no labour seams visible). Given the unique nature of low-budget filmmaking, the movie’s gifts are bountiful, from the breathtaking cutting and first-rate sound works to the evocative score. No stone was left unturned in this ravishing production.
The Animal Project is ultimately powerful stuff and its story, characters and thematic underbelly offer a universal resonance. It feels like the work of someone who’s done some living and has the potential to touch a wide range of people. We discover, quite naturally and with no didacticism, that the masks we wear are indeed what we use to crash through our inhibitions to hit the raw nerves of truth and self-discovery in order to move forward in the world, with our spirit, soul, intellect and emotions. It’s how we must live. Most importantly, though, the masks we wear are not enough. We must learn to wear them well.
From the wilds of the northern-most tip of the Bruce Peninsula in the Dominion of Canada, I bid you a hearty ‘Bon cinema!’
The Animal Project is available worldwide via Vimeo On Demand. In Canada it unspooled theatrically via Mongrel Media, one of the country’s safe harbours for fresh, new, exciting and fiercely independent cinema) at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto (the year-round home for all of TIFF’s activities , including the Toronto International Film Festival).