Puberty can be horrifying. With the exception of Ginger Snaps, it’s surprising how rarely the werewolf film is used to showcase the terror of growing up, what with a pubescent finding hair appearing out of nowhere, undergoing unexpected growth, and hungering for something new. The Danish film When Animals Dream attempts to link lycanthropy with the horrors inherent in becoming an adult—but that’s the only surprise its meandering plot can muster.
Marie (Sonia Suhl) is a sixteen-year-old girl who lives in a small village with her father Thor (Lars Mikkelsen, brother of Mads) and her catatonic mother (Sonja Richter). After Marie takes a job on an assembly line filleting fish, she’s immediately picked on by her mostly male coworkers, who on her very first day both make fun of her mother and throw her in a vat of fish waste. Meanwhile, Marie has noticed a rash on her breast, which seems to be spreading, and she’s short with her father more and more. As this apparent “condition” only worsens, Marie begins to realize that her mother might have been afflicted with the same, and that some townspeople might know more of what is happening to her than she does.
It’s abundantly clear that Marie is transforming into a werewolf—without a doubt—yet When Animals Dream attempts to place us into Marie’s headspace, questioning the terror of what’s going on with her body. There is disappointingly no suspense here, just the patience required to wait for the inevitable: Marie’s full transformation and her revenge on the people who have wronged her family.
First time feature director and co-writer Jonas Alexander Arnby, who’s worked in the art department for Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, provides his setting with the look and feel of any of Von Trier’s psychological dramas, but without the guttural fear that looms in the backgrounds of even his films with the most levity. The ambience that Arnby and cinematographer Niels Thastum give their village is sufficiently gloomy and fog-covered, screaming disaster around the next corner, but nothing here ever quite pays off in the way the filmmakers seem to hope it will.
When Animals Dream’s biggest flaw, however, might just be that it was done so much better before: Let the Right One In shares this film’s mystery, horror, metaphor, country of origin, and potential young love story. When Marie meets Daniel (Jakob Oftebro), her only coworker who shows kindness towards her, the conclusion of their courtship could possibly be intriguing if it wasn’t broadcast from years away, in any number of defter films, especially in the Swedish prepubescent vampire fable.
Likewise, Suhl’s performance struggles to match the tone of When Animals Dream’s parsing of horror and serious drama, mostly due to the way in which Suhl blankly accepts what is happening to her character with little fear or consequence for her actions—even a young person going through non-werewolf-infused puberty would appear more emotionally present. Really, it’s Mikkelsen’s performance as Thor that lifts the emotional heft of the film’s plot, as he’s watching his only daughter succumbing to the problem that left his wife in her current state. More than anyone, he is losing everything he has throughout the film, and his dire reactions leave so much richer nuance to chew on than Suhl’s teenager-ly complacency.
As a werewolf flick, When Animals Dream truly lacks any sort of anxiety or dread, and as simply a puberty metaphor, the film offers no explanation or context regarding how or why this is happening to Marie—almost as if it’s just not interested in explaining, period (sorry). Yet it wants to be both. And that’s that: With a running time of about 80 minutes, Arnby has plenty of time to create a beautifully dark world for us to visit, but doesn’t offer much of a reason to let it grow on us.
Director: Jonas Alexander Arnby
Writers: Jonas Alexander Arnby, Rasmus Birch, Christoffer Boe
Starring: Sonia Suhl, Lars Mikkelsen, Sonja Richter, Jakob Oftebro
Release Date: August 28, 2015
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.