In Theresa Bennett’s snarky debut feature Social Animals, lead character Zoe (Noel Wells) is caricatured as the ultimate miserable, single twenty-something finding loveless hook ups just to escape the doldrums of her unmarried, uneventful life.
It’s a misguided outlook because it’s not long before the film introduces three sets of Zoe’s friends — two married and one involved in a long term relationship — that reveals their monogamous unions are far from perfect. In fact, they’re often suffering from more agony than Zoe ever could imagine, with enough drama and sexual frustration to fill three movies. At times, I wished the movie expanded more on them over Zoe.
Paul (Josh Radnor) and Jane (Aya Cash) haven’t had sex in months. He tries, but she constantly pulls away due to stress from work and the raising of their three kids, one of whom believes he’s a dog and spends all his time crawling on the floor and barking at people.
Zoe’s best friend (Carly Chaikin) suspects her boyfriend of cheating on her, even enlisting Zoe to help her tail him to his favorite lunch spot one day. The (seemingly) most well adjusted couple, Lana (Samira Wiley) and Justin (Adam Shapiro), exist simply to throw wedding parties and baby showers that illuminate the very uncomfortable existence of Zoe as she stands by watching life unfold at a very rapid pace for everyone else.
It’s at one of these parties that Zoe feels the urgent need to escape and catches Paul’s eye. Because he works across the street from her failing waxing-beauty shop and his own store (Austin cinematic landmark Vulcan Video) is also on the financial ropes, the two start up a friendly relationship that slowly grows into something more. But it’s actually okay since Jane, realizing the collapsing affection in their marriage, gives Paul her blessing to start an affair.
However convoluted this sounds, it really isn’t. Maintaining a snippy and at times coarse sense of humor, mostly from Zoe’s friend Mary Beth (Fortune Feimster), including a diversion into her giving an oral sex workshop and the various conversations Zoe has while waxing her friend’s private parts, Social Animals fits into that snug category of millennial comedy that finds the humor in stoned hipster conversations and constant snark between friends. It can be funny in the right amount, but in Social Animals that’s all that seems to exist, right down to the self reflexive tee shirts Zoe wears.
Outside of the comedy, Social Animals strives to be a modern version of something Paul Mazursky or Mike Nichols might have made in the 60’s or 70’s. That is, a revolving door of failed relationships, boundary-less hook ups and eventual warm embraces in finding something better than they currently have.
There are moments of warmth in Bennett’s film and one can feel it leaning in the direction of something more palpable, such as the turmoil felt by Jane as she embarks on her own extramarital dalliances. But then, its focus is shuttered back to the eternally impertinent Zoe, and I slowly lost interest. At least the backdrop of the film’s setting in Austin, Texas and its “Keep Austin Weird” aesthetic plays a major role. For a film whose trajectory is ostensibly about adulthood awakening on a floundering soul, getting lost in the background noise over the interior one isn’t a good thing.
Social Animals opens in limited release around the country and on VOD platforms on Friday June 1.