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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that American Animals is a true-crime story about an attempt to steal rare books from a college library; the real-life participants are interviewed alongside scenes showing the fictionalized action. Expect a potentially upsetting scene of men attacking a woman with a Taser. There's also some fighting, and a man is hit by a car. The dialogue includes a few eyebrow-raising sexual references; characters also kiss and flirt, and men ogle women. Strong language includes many uses of "f--k," "s--t," and more. Teens drink, smoke, and use drugs. The movie is clever and energetic, and it plays with its ideas in smart ways, but the subject matter makes it most appropriate for mature viewers.
What's the story?
Based on actual events, AMERICAN ANIMALS follows Warren Lipka (Evan Peters) and Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) as they drift through their suburban life. Then Spencer discovers the rare book room at Transylvania University in Kentucky, where priceless copies of a Darwin edition and Audubon's Birds of America are kept. The friends begin to entertain a "what if" idea of stealing the books; over time, their notion turns more and more into an actual plan, complete with charts and disguises. They enlist two others, Eric (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas (Blake Jenner), and a date is set. Despite their fantasies of how the theft is going to go -- fueled by a well-studied stack of heist movies -- the actual day happens quite differently.
Is it any good?
For this true-crime movie, writer/director Bart Layton attempts a new angle and succeeds. American Animals is narrated by the heist's actual participants, and it's brilliantly edited, bringing fascinating layers to the proceedings. Layton's previous movie, the documentary The Imposter, asked pointed questions about perception, acceptance, and truth, and he continues with those themes here (albeit in a more crowd-pleasing way). Not only does American Animals allow for its interviewees to sometimes contradict one another, it occasionally drops them right into the action along with the actors who are playing them to further underline possible inconsistencies in memory and storytelling. (The movie claims that it's not "based on" a true story; it is a true story.)
Even better are the imagined victories, the scenes that feel just like traditional heist movies, but with an outsider's knowledge; the scenes play against the characters' knowledge and the viewers' knowledge in fascinatingly different ways. American Animals probably wouldn't have worked if not for the fine performances, especially by the nuanced, vulnerable Keoghan (who was disturbingly good in The Killing of a Sacred Deer) and Ann Dowd, who brings great fear and hurt to her role as librarian Betty Jean Gooch (the real Ms. Gooch also appears as herself). The film eventually captures the horrible weight of committing a crime. In this way, American Animals isn't just highly entertaining, but it also provides food for thought.
Talk to your kids about ...
How does group mentality lead to the young men attempting the heist? Do you think they would have done it individually? Would you have gone along with it?
What did the men learn from their foray into crime?
How effective is the movie's mix of documentary reporting and fictionalized drama?
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Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.