Increasingly powerful and consistent acting presence Aaron Poole (This Beautiful City) confidently leads Ingrid Veninger's subtle, funny and moving character-driven drama about an emotionally wounded theatre teacher trying to reconnect with his son and sense of self.
While Leo is undoubtedly the focus of the story, we learn a great deal about him through the way he interacts with his small theatre group and, consequently, the fundamental characteristics of the peripheral players caught in his orbit are clearly conveyed.
We are introduced to each member of the troupe via first-person interviews conducted by Leo. His are highly personal, big questions regarding regret, ambition, religion, love, family and death. In their responses, we get a sense of each character's general attitude and approach towards life, though some answers are more revealing than others.
Always armed with a fake accent, Alice (Hannah Cheeseman) is a performer afraid to let anyone see her out of character; Mira (Sarena Parmar) is an insecure, aspiring actress with a princess complex; Saul (Joey Klein) is a sensitive, sarcastic prick using irreverence to cover the sting of fresh emotional scabs; and Pippa (Jessica Greco) is a sassy lesbian with a touch of social anxiety and a fondness for pot.
Less emphasis is placed upon the other cast members initially, but once Leo convinces them to stage a public art experiment based on a dream influenced by a project he did with his son years ago, we're exposed to a gamut of complex emotions expressed by each character primarily through body language.
Leo's idea to reinvigorate their stagnant craft — Veninger shows us the group of misfit actors growing tired of running exercises — is to put on animal suits and interact with the public. The thought is that a neutral disguise gives people the comfort to display affection normally deemed suspect or inappropriate for parties on both sides of the suit. How the public responds to these giant mascots of raw emotion is as telling as how the performers choose to act out their freeform assignment.
While all of this is going on, we see the strained relationship between Leo and his son, Sam (Jacob Switzer), take on a new dimension as the frustrated single father begins to find catharsis in the truth conduit of his animal self.
A touching character piece with a quirky sense of humour, The Animal Project is first-rate Canadian cinema. Watch out for an appearance by the perfect band to represent unabashed self-expression: Friendly Rich and the Lollipop People.