BY Will Cook

How did you procrastinate over your mid-semester break? For these four Kentucky kids, youthful apathy results in an elaborate scheme to thwart the Transylvania University library of a rare collection of naturalist early 19th Century books.

An engrossing fusion of piece-to-camera documentary and drama that evolves from a coming-of-age muse into a more intense heist film, American Animals is Australian-based director Bart Layton’s second attempt at a such a genre-hoping creation. Following 2012’s must-watch The Imposter, American Animals relies moreso on the performances of professional actors than real-life talent to engage.

Wallowing in the presented monotony of 2003, Art’s student Spencer (Barry Keoghan) is intelligent and disenfranchised with the meaning of life. Warren (Evan Peters) is on an athletic development scholarship, drinking A LOT and bored. Seemingly empowered by their joint, yet individual, search for meaning, the boys devise a plan to make them millions. The mission: steal The Birds of America and other rare manuscripts from beneath the nose of stereotypical glass-wearing, aged and plump librarian Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd).

Returning from a research venture to Amsterdam, the pair realise that a robbery with many hands will make light work. They enlist the help of the buff Chas (Blake Jenner), and the bookish Eric (Jared Abrahamson). Bubbling away, for too long, as a jovial teen-romp, American Animals quickly thrust into a sweat-inducing thriller once the heist begins.

Told through conflicting perspectives of the real-life heisters, American Animals is a subtly thought-provoking drama. Completed with re-winds of scenes to suit different retellings, Layton attempts to bestow a mood of eerie question over the truth and the boys’ friendship. Melding the two structures of documentary and drama as one is an awkward landing. However, as characters and heist plans develop, so too does the formidability of the narr tional mode. Editing real-life people into dramtised scenes of action highlights American Animals determination to flex it nuance.  

In espousing to be conceptual innovative, American Animals neglects a precise pace. Layton bustles through imperative moments of character development, albeit only to reach stilted scenes between the four leads. An awkward case of when the American Horror Story, Glee, indie-film and sci-fi series actors walk onto a film set, ensemble moments appear to be taken from a first table read. Released at the esteemed Sundance Festival in January, the performances degree in quality is bemusing.

While lead Barry Keoghan is intended as relatable, he comes across as dreary as the intentionally drab Kentucky setting. Instead, it is Evan Peters as the erratic, self-described brains behind the book heist, Warren who rightfully consumes the spotlight. Fans of The Handmaid’s Tale will marvel at Aunt Lydia, Anne Dowd’s prowess at negating her harsh preconception.

Rightfully too minimal a university yarn to warrant a feature documentary, American Animals aims to archive an interesting story with originality. While Layton’s creative intention is commendable and delivered with technical prowess, the performances and structure leave the film sitting firmly in the Credit band.

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