When women on screen are allowed to shed the expectation of responsibility and moral goodness that shroud their lives, brilliant things happen.
In ANIMALS, director Sophie Hyde's film adaptation of Emma Jane Unsworth's novel of the same name, best friends Laura (Holliday Granger) and Tyler (Alia Shawkat) revel in pints and drugs and men and one another. Their lives are reckless but controlled, because no matter how wild the late nights and early mornings get, they always come home to one another.
There's a silent truce that fizzles between them, an "If you jump, I jump, Jack" that propels them into chaos with one another as a life jacket. But the announcement that Laura's married sister is pregnant – and that the pregnancy is welcomed, and not an inconvenient accident to be taken care of – halts her otherwise unquestioned view that life can and will just carry on this way for eternity. That is should.
The roughly hewn genre of "women behaving badly" has had its time in the sun in recent years, marked by the release of such films as YOUNG ADULT, directed by Jason Reitman and written by Diablo Cody. But when Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) blazes forward with no care for anyone besides herself and her desires, Reitman instructs his audience to pity, not root for, the anti-heroine. The disappointment of her life is broadcast silently in the beige shoebox apartment where she spends her days skulling Diet Coke and watching reality TV ad nauseum, and in the camera lingering on the fresh hair pieces she clips into her scalp before a hopeful meeting with an ex. It's not primping, it's pitying.
What Mavis doesn't have is an other half, a psychic twin fused to her side and echoing her sensibilities, the way Tyler and Laura do for one another. Or, rather, the way they did before Laura began absorbing the pressure of performing growth and decides to knuckle down to finish writing her novel, before she meets and moves in with and gets engaged to classical pianist Jim (Fra Fee), before she baffles her best friend by deciding that turning 30 means wanting their lives to change, and believing that soaking their nights in MDMA crystals and free champagne at gallery openings is not proper or for her.
While Tyler and Laura's closest bad-girl screen counterparts might be Kirsten Dunst's band of commitment-phobic party girls in Bachelorette, their true mirrors lay more closely in independent films like Claudia Weill's 1978 masterpiece GIRLFRIENDS.
In these films, it's when one half of an interwoven female friendship shrugs loose that both are left feeling utterly adrift. They infuse the proximity of intense female affection with life-changing importance.
In GIRLFRIENDS, Anne Munroe (Anita Skinner) moves out of the apartment she shared with Susan Weinblatt (Melanie Mayron) to live upstate with her new husband and baby. Susan is alone in New York City, trying to fill the void Anne left behind, clueless to the fact that Anne is nursing a crying infant and lusting after the creative freedom and absolute independence her friend in the city takes for granted. “You’re the one that left me,” Susan has to remind her. Later, as they quietly reconcile and learn to find a new dynamic that involves more people than it used to, she confides to Anne, “I’m afraid of being left.” Left alone, left behind, left to spend a weekend waiting for you to call – they're all equally terrifying to one half missing the person who made her whole. It would be easy to judge Tyler for resisting change and resenting the idea of settling down being some kind of morally superior choice. To cast doubt on her inherent value because of her behaviour and beliefs. But Hyde's direction and her partner Bryan Mason's cinematography perform an empathetic double-act, tenderly depicting an ultimately toxic friendship that, once tapped gently, reveals unmendable cracks, through no fault of either party. Neither can be wrong, because that would imply one life path is right. And in allowing the friends to melt away from one another but remain in the same orbit, ANIMALS insists that neither Laura's nor Tyler's method of forging ahead is inherently better than the other.
Brodie Lancaster is a writer from Melbourne and the author of No Way! Okay, Fine.
To learn more about al thirty-four of the feature films in competition for the 2019 AACTA Awards presented by Foxtel, download the Judges Handbook here.