Sundance 2018: 'American Animals' is a Fun, Unbelievable True Story
by Alex Billington
January 20, 2018
What happens when a bunch of bored young American teens try to pull off an art heist? That's the premise behind this new film from director Bart Layton, titled American Animals, which just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Back in 2012, Bart Layton brought his documentary The Imposter to Sundance, and I wrote in my review that it's "one of those unbelievable true stories you just must see to believe." American Animals is very similar, thematically, to that film in the way that it's another almost-unbelievable, can't-believe-it's-a-true-story story. But this is about of a group of wacky, free-spirited kids who failed miserably trying to pull off an art heist at a local university in Kentucky. It's creative and fun, but not that memorable.
The film is about a group of four youngsters who decide, on a whim, to attempt to steal some rare one-of-a-kind books from a university library. The main cast is lead by Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters, Blake Jenner, and Jared Abrahamson. They are playing actual people who tried to pull off this "heist", and got caught. The film actually introduces us to the real people and it's a little jarring, because they don't exactly match up, and the one-after-another comparisons made me too critical of the performances. They're not that bad, they just don't impress. The story explains all of their history and reasons why they tried to do this, but it amounts to nothing more than wanting to do something so as to not live a life of doing nothing. And even the narrative questions their memories, so it's all a bit confusing to understand their motives anyway.
What works well about Layton's American Animals is the creative mix of documentary interviews within the feature narrative. Most of the film is "fictional", though one could say it's more of a massive recreation for a docu-drama. Sometimes the real people even appear in scenes and take over the actors for a brief second before it cuts back to the scene at hand. Sometimes they question whether their memories are even accurate or not. Layton has mastered the mix and is good at making it all feel authentic and engaging and curious, letting this creativity pull you further into the story. However, the film still runs way too long and is need of some better editing. By the time the heist goes down, I'd almost lost interest, especially because the opening intro is so exciting and thrilling. But it never lived up to that opening and it's not that memorable in the end.
There are some positives to American Animals: it has a great soundtrack of songs along with a nice score. A few of the performances are good, though I admit the personalities from the actual people were a bit more interesting than the performances. More than anything it's an intriguing look at how trying to pull off a heist in real life is really hard, and you'll probably screw up. The movies that show all the heists are just movies, it won't go that smoothly. And then we get to see a heist go wrong, which isn't really as fun as you think. And this most likely upset me the most. I get that this is a key a part of telling a cautionary tale of don't-try-to-find-adventure (let it find you), but the rest of it doesn't have much else to say. In the end it was a let down.
Alex's Sundance 2018 Rating: 6.5 out of 10
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