American Animals (2018) reviewed by Jonathan Berk

Picking movies at SXSW can be really tough, and often requires a lot of research and reading to make sure the film you pick will align with your tastes. For American Animals (2018), that wasn’t needed, because there was so much buzz out of Sundance that I just added it to my list without looking into it much. I had a general idea of what the story was, and it was compelling enough to get me through the door. Thus, I was pleasantly rewarded as the cast slowly appeared in the film ensuring that I’d made a wise choice.

The less you know about American Animals the more fun you’ll likely have watching it

Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) gets captivated by a rare collection of books housed at Transylvania University’s special section. When he tells his friend Warren Lipka (Evan Peters) about the potential value of the books, Warren gets the idea to plan a heist. They slowly enlist two more friends to help with the planning and execution to steal these valuable books and leave their mark on this world.

Evan Peters gets a lot of work, but he needs even more. The guy just owns the screen when he is on it and elevates projects he is involved in. At this point in his career that isn’t really surprising, but it seems like Barry Keoghan has come out of nowhere with a similar impact. The two of them being in this film together works really well. Keoghan is the introvert and Peters is the emphatic friend who really seems to be the mastermind of this crazy heist. Blake Jenner continues to impress, though he isn’t used as much as the other two.

One of the most interesting elements of this film is how it merges the real people and the actors portraying them. There are talking head interviews and voiceovers from the real people, and at times their stories conflict. Those moments allow director Bart Layton interesting opportunities for storytelling. In one moment, the real-life Spencer remembers a conversation happening in a car while Warren remembers it at a party. As the scene plays out the film jumps from both of those scenarios as though they were instantly transported from one place to another. There are several little moments like this that are fun and innovative to the story.

True story movies can often be a little lacking in tension, especially if the audience already knows or expects that outcome. In this case, I knew absolutely nothing about it, so I wasn’t sure how the film was going to play out. The story has tons of tensions and humor, but there are a few side stories that feel slightly unresolved or maybe unneeded to the whole of the film. For example, Warren’s scholarship at the University of Kentucky feels like an afterthought, despite having at least two scenes that discuss his need to play. We know he isn’t, but there is never any real closure to the outcome of that storyline.

Final thoughts…

American Animals is a pretty innovative film with a great cast and is a surprisingly true story. It’s got a little bit of everything to make it something that most people will enjoy while retaining a strong uniqueness about it. I’d considered skipping this screening as exhaustion and homesickness are getting to me, but I’m glad I powered through. American Animals earns the Must See rating.

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