by George Sax
“I’m having trouble finding my positive spin,” a grieving mother tearfully says at one point in David Michod’s Animal Kingdom. She might well feel that way since she’s just lost her second son to gunfire in a matter of weeks. Her situation is even more out of the ordinary than that; she’s the matriarch of a small-time but lethally violent Melbourne, Australia crime family fighting an intermittent war with the cops.
At the film’s core is Joshua Cody (James Frecheville), a teen who, when his mom fatally ODs, calls this same woman, his grandmother, because he has no one else. Animal Kingdom follows his integration into the dangerously volatile and felonious little world of his four uncles. Michod, who spent seven years trying to bring this, his first feature-length film, to fruition, assays a low-key, almost affectless style. But it’s not without a sort of dankly looney wit. Grandma (Jacki Weaver, in the film’s best performance) engages in a semi-knowing parody of a warm, give-your-mom-a-kiss Mother Courage, and one of Joshua’s uncles, soon to perish in a shootout with the fuzz, stops to instruct the boy in bathroom hand-washing.
This is like a subdued Scorsese, a damped-down Guy Ritchie. Animal Kingdom is a coming-of-age story amid a subcultural family portrait. On hand is the only name performer, Guy Pearce, as a cop who ends up struggling for James’ soul, with unexpected results that have a modest narrative payoff.
Watch the trailer for Animal Kingdom
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