TIFF Review: 'The Animal Project'

The Animal Project
(Canada, 90 min.)
Written and directed by Ingrid Veninger
Starring: Aaron Poole, Hannah Cheesman, Jessica Greco, Emmanuel Kabongo, Sarena Parma, Johnathan Sousa, Jacob Switzer.
Programme: Contemporary World Cinema (World Premiere)
Photo by John Gundy. Courtesy of Mongrel Media.

Toronto’s indie film queen Ingrid Veninger walks and talks with the animals in her latest and arguably most ambitious film The Animal Project. The film sees Leo, an unconventional acting teacher played by Aaron Poole (The Conspiracy), test his students by tasking them with an unusual acting exercise that takes them out of their comfort zones and has them unleash the beast within. The assignment, dubbed The Animal Project and inspired by a memory from the childhood of Leo’s son (Jacob Switzer), asks the acting class to dress up as furries and wander the streets of Toronto.

The range of feelings and emotions The Animal Project creates is a testament both to the cast and to Veninger’s direction as the oversized furries roam the busy city. Stripped of their greatest asset—their faces—the actors can use only their body language and posturing to communicate with the humans they encounter on the streets. The Animal Project is alternatively hilarious and moving through the sheer placement of the actors in unexpected places. It’s a feat of incongruous compositions. A big owl perched with the pigeons on the steps of a church, for example, brings a collective laugh from the audience while a gigantic cat basking in the sunset feels just as warm as seeing a little kitty snuggle up in a sunbeam. The sight proves funny again when the actor awakens from the catnap and hightails it to work.

Playing the part of an animal also gives the actors a heightened sense of what it’s like to feel watched. The furries are like animals in the zoo as perverts in the Annex cop a feel on the ass (one of the female actors plays a donkey) or as passersby gawk and stare at a mouse in high heels. The Animal Project shows the actors how it feels to act outside of normal social boundaries, too, as virtually every encounter between man and animal in the film goes far differently than it would between two random people in the street. (Free hugs in Toronto might not be reciprocated otherwise.) There is something ineffably liberating behind The Animal Project’s ability to let the actors act more naturally than they could in real life.

The Animal Project also seems liberating for Veninger, who makes a notable departure from her previous films. Veninger’s other works as a director have largely been family affairs, but this film is cast with professional actors (although Leo’s son Sam is played by Veninger’s own son, Jacob) and it tells a story on a larger scale with more layers and subplots than she’s used before. The result of the project is something strange, intimate, and thought provoking. It still feels like a family affair, too, since the camaraderie between the actors leaps off the screen. The actors, likewise, are partners in the film as Veninger secured them under unconventional circumstances and cast the project before it was written. Shot with a skeleton crew and an enthusiasm for originality, The Animal Project rings of innovation and offbeat authenticity. This quirky maplecore pic might be Veninger’s finest project to date.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

The Animal Project will be release in March 2014.