The best addiction stories are about much more than drugs. They’re about real people who suffer from a disease that takes more than good intentions to overcome. Director Collin Schiffli portrays the highs and lows of addiction with equal candor in his excellent debut Animals. It’s the story of two young heroin addicts in Chicago and the powerful companionship they share that’s as heartfelt as it is destructive.

Bobbie (Kim Shaw) and Jude (David Dastmalchian) wake up in a beat-up sedan. Bobbie checks her makeup and Jude lights a cigarette. They don’t have jobs or commitments but they can’t waste any time. They need money for drugs. We don’t know where they came from or why they’re addicted but it doesn’t matter. In the life of the hustler, it’s about the here and now and Animals never loses that sense of immediacy.

Bobbie and Jude’s lives are as dependent on drugs as they are on each other. Whether sleeping, walking, buying or using, they’re inseparable. Since they can’t survive off love alone, they have a repertoire of tricks for nabbing fast cash. While Bobbie flirts with a cashier at a music store, Jude stuffs CDs into his jacket. They sneak into a wedding and walk out with unopened presents. They take a casual stroll along Lake Michigan and Jude grabs a stranger’s wallet. Some of their maneuvers are so smooth that we don’t even know they’re happening.

Bobbie and Jude’s behavior isn’t legal and it’s certainly not ethical but on the streets of Chicago, the normal rules don’t apply. Bobbie and Jude are classic drifters. Getting by on the fringes of society, they live by rules of their own making. Yet for all their the thefts and petty deceptions, they remain vulnerable and sympathetic people. That’s because actors Shaw and Dastmalchian are such immensely watchable performers. Their dusty faces and rumpled clothes say more than dialogue ever could.

We never learn about Bobbie and Jude’s past and this is fine but it could leave some filmgoers wanting more. The most we learn about their background arrives in one memorable scene when Jude wonders aloud how they turned into users. Jude says, “We couldn’t have been born into more ideal circumstances. We’re white, American, college degree, middle-class. What happened?” It’s an acknowledgment of privilege and the complicated reasons for which people turn to drugs in the first place. Bobbie shrugs. She doesn’t know.

Animals has the tightly contained intensity of many small budget films. Schiffli’s direction, free of quick cuts and gimmicky edits, is intimate and oddly confident for a debut director. He’s not trying to show off and he doesn’t need to; the story says it all. He captures the highs and lows with equal candor. Focusing on Jude and Bobbie’s every movement, his direction effectively blurs the lines between our life and theirs.

It’s hard to predict what will happen to Bobbie and Jude. As they seek more highs with less money, the stakes build in ways believable and surprising.

Music by Ian Hultquist (a founding member of the band Passion Pit) is restrained yet effective. His acoustic guitar and urban sound samples add grit and grace to film already brimming with youthful talent.

Like Drugstore Cowboy, Requiem for a Dream and the great addiction films before it, Animals doesn’t criminalize or romanticize the lifestyle of users. Rather, it shows the human side. Animals was inspired by the real life experiences of writer and star, David Dastmalchian. Thirteen years ago, Dastmalchian had a needle in his arm. He found the strength to recover and the result was Animals, a small but moving story about the animal in us all.

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