Last night, PJ and I watched Animal Kingdom from Netflix. This Oscar nominated Australian film is gritty crime movie told from the perspective of 17-year-old Josh. As the film begins, Josh’s mother dies from an overdose, forcing him to move in with his grandmother and uncles, who are professional back robbers.

The cops are on to the family’s criminal activities, creating an increasingly tense climate as the police resort to drastic measures to “punish” the family for its crimes. As the violence escalates, Josh has to decide whose side he’s on: the corrupt police or his corrupt family. It’s not an easy choice.

Here’s the trailer:

Overall, I really liked this movie. The acting and directing are excellent, even if some of the plot twists are hard to believe — it’s sometimes difficult to believe that anyone would make such stupid choices when confronted with a situation as volatile and violent as Animal Kingdom depicts. Even so, I really liked it.

Newcomer James Frecheville plays Josh. Fresheville was also 17 when he made this movie, which lends a certain authenticity to his performance. He’s very good at portraying Josh’s bewilderment in this new situation. Josh makes decisions along the way that made me question his intelligence, but Frecheville is great at keeping Josh sympathetic and believable.

Jackie Weaver has received an Oscar nomination for her role as Josh’s grandmother. The beauty of her performance is that her character becomes less and less sympathetic as the movie progresses, even thought we understand why she does what she chooses to do. She feels that she is being forced to make choices; for our perspective the choices she makes are monstrous. Weaver is great at starting the film by making her character sympathetic, which makes the monstrous parts even more monstrous.

I also really liked Joel Edgerton as one of Josh’s uncles. Edgerton previously started in the television series The Secret Life of Us, a kind of Australian friends (but better) and in two of the more recent Star Wars movies. Here, he’s the most sympathetic of Josh’s uncles, a married man who wants out of the robbery business. When events get out of control, though, he’s unable to pursue his desire to become a stock investor rather than a criminal.

And Guy Pearce plays the police detective who wants to save Josh from his family and the cycle of violence around them. This is the second movie in a row that I’ve seen with Pearce in it. He’s a great actor who disappears into his roles. He plays earnestness well, especially when that earnestness isn’t really what’s needed when the world around him is utterly corrupt and entirely Darwinian.

My biggest criticism of the movie is that some of its plot points seem too incredible. When you know that someone is trying to kill you, it seems incredible that you’d go someplace they could easily find you. Or, when your boyfriend breaks up with you, why would you go over to spend time with his violent and creepy uncle? Or, if someone is under police custody, how could anyone plausibly believe that other cops could show up and nearly kill the witness by “accident”?

Many of the plot points add to the suspense and tension of the film, but they also made me question writer/director David Michôd‘s skill as a storyteller. After watching the film, I read that Australia did have  violence streak in the 1980s in which police and criminals were basically waging a guerrilla war against each other. That helps the film’s plot a bit, but the director also mentioned that the movie isn’t really set in that time period. So, for me  it ended up being a little more style over substance in this respect.

But I like style and don’t mind a little shallowness to my substance from time to time. And the performances and direction are excellent. So, I enjoyed the movie and recommend it.