SXSW FILM 2011
By Don Simpson | May 21, 2011
Director: Matt D’Elia
Writer: Matt D’Elia
Starring: Matt D’Elia, Brendan Fletcher, Mircea Monroe, Angela Sarafyan
I give Matt D’Elia a tremendous amount of credit for the sheer audacity to make American Animal, his debut feature. American Animal is an incredibly confident film that its sure to elicit strong responses from its audience. It is utterly impossible to watch American Animal without having some kind of opinion about it: you will either see D’Elia as a novel genius or he will drive you absolutely bat-shit crazy.
I can state with utmost confidence, that American Animal‘s chief protagonist (or antagonist) Jimmy (Matt D’Elia) will certainly make a long-lasting impression on you. Jimmy is a spastic ball of uncontrollable energy and anxiety, as if his blood has been replaced in perpetuity by a potent cocktail of speed and LSD (to which he often adds marijuana). Jimmy’s manic personality could be tied to the fact that he is dying. Knowing that death is imminent, Jimmy has chosen to embrace absolute freedom; essentially, to do whatever he wants to do, whenever he wants to do it, all within the confines of his apartment. Jimmy’s aspiration is for the human race to evolve beyond the need for rules of morality, and he views himself as the necessary link or gateway to the next evolutionary step. In case you are wondering, Jimmy does not have a job; he does not need to, he is a trust fund kid.
Jimmy’s “normal” roommate, James (Brendan Fletcher), does not want to abide by Jimmy’s rules of a rule-less lifestyle. So James finds an office job, but is afraid to suffer the verbally verbose wrath of Jimmy. Of course Jimmy does eventually discover James’ working secret, and relentlessly rails on him for blindly falling into a bourgeois conformist trap.
Two women, both named Angela (Mircea Monroe and Angela Sarafyan), are friends with Jimmy and James. One seems to be attracted to Jimmy, while the other finds seems scared of him — that is until she ends having sex with him (she is incredibly stoned at the time).
American Animal is like a surreal mind-fuck of a stage play mashed-up with the canned laugh-track sensibilities of a long-lost Three’s Company episode. Jimmy is — quite purposefully — a comic caricature of a…well…whoever he is supposed to be; the set design is unnaturally bright; the dialogue is overtly stunted; and the editing, especially in the early part of the narrative, is startlingly frenetic. There is nothing natural about this self-contained environment that D’Elia thrusts the audience into full force.
On paper, American Animal would be my favorite film of SXSW 2011, but on celluloid it is pure torture. I am usually in the front of the pack when it comes to ushering in new visions to the world of cinema. There is nothing that is not brazenly shocking about D’Elia’s vision, which in itself seems remarkably clear. I understand that the Jimmy character is intended to grate on every last nerve of the audience, but I just did not enjoy enduring the endless torture. Watching American Animal is like a trip to the dentist for me, I know in theory its good, but I am tense and uncomfortable throughout the experience. I appreciate that American Animal is able to encourage such a strong response from me — my head is still shaking in disbelief — that is something that I find to be truly important in cinema. However, I do not enjoy enduring 95 minutes of cerebral torture.
After much pontificating, I have come to the conclusion that I will give American Animal the highest I have ever given a film that I enjoyed so little. In fact, it probably deserves a much higher rating than a “6”, I just cannot bring myself to rate it any higher.