MSPIFF14 Reviews: Proxy and The Animal Project

Happy Wednesday everyone! Ok, we’re down to the last two batches of MSPIFF reviews. Today we’ve got two from Josh  from JJames Reviews.



Review by Josh P.

Proxy-PosterProxy begins with Esther Woodhouse (Alexia Rasmussen), who is nine months pregnant, at an ultrasound appointment, talking to a technician (Shayla Hardy). Rasmussen’s stunningly removed vocal and facial affect tells us that Esther is, at the very least, depressed. Co-writer/director Zach Parker’s decisions are just as unsettling. For instance, Esther’s pregnancy belly is shaped oddly; the sonogram never looks like a fully formed baby; the technician’s conversation is bizarre; and so forth. Everything about the opening scene tells us that something is wrong, foreshadowing the next development, when someone with skinny legs and a red sweatshirt brutally attacks Esther. The mother survives, but the baby does not, and so begins a series of off-putting conversations, culminating in Esther meeting Melanie Michaels (Alexa Havins) at a support group. The two women form a friendship, but their relationship is complicated by a variety of factors, including, but not limited to, Patrick (Joe Swanberg), Anika (Kristina Klebe), Peyton (Xavier Parker) and Melanie’s own mental instability. 

In the early going, Proxy is atmospherically mind-bending, featuring considerable tension that causes confusion without frustration. It helps that the two featured characters, and the actors who play them, are compelling. Esther and Melanie are disturbed but still interesting, especially Esther, whose mental illness we do not understand until it’s too late.


Throughout, Parker’s artistic decisions—including a slow-motion sequence and an odd fantasy in the picture’s climax—build tension. Rasmussen’s entrancing performance helps just as much. In her hands, Esther might be a psychopath, a broken victim or something in between. 

Unfortunately, Proxy does not sustain such quality, largely because many of the twists make Melanie less believable, but mostly because Patrick and Anika are not as interesting as Esther and her new friend. Swanberg plays Patrick with, more or less, a single facial expression, one that makes a would-be complex character decidedly one-note. As such, whenever Proxy focuses on him, it suffers. Ditto that for Anika, though for different reasons. Klebe’s performance is fine, but the character she plays is poorly written, so poorly that Anika is archetypal, unexplained and unbelievable. 

Parker and Donner’s portrayal of women doesn’t help either. The three primary females are, to varying degrees, insane, and the minor characters are either insensitive or weak.  Would I call Proxy sexist? Probably not, but, at the least, I can understand why some (including Slant magazine) have. And, whether or not the film is biased, such characterization means we never genuinely empathize with any of these characters. In turn, we never feel Proxy’s would be emotion (I am aware that Slant’s review makes this point, as well).

For all of that, Proxy remains interesting enough to warrant a tepid recommendation, if only because, it does successfully buy our interest. We want to know what will happen next.

2.5 out of 5 reels

The Animal Project

Review by Josh P.

The-Animal-Project-PosterWhat with simple focus on a small acting class, The Animal Project is not the most complex movie at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival, but it is nonetheless a solid, character-driven dramedy.

In centering her Canadian film on Leo (Aaron Poole), a father, widower and acting teacher, writer/director Ingrid Veninger wisely chooses a complex and likable protagonist. Leo contends with considerable baggage, not the least of which is a positive but strained relationship with his eighteen-year-old son, Sam (Jacob Switzer), and muddled interaction with one of his students, Saul (Joey Klein). Eventually, Leo devises a plan to challenge his students by having them dress up in costumes and walk around town, offering free hugs to people they meet. 

That is, more or less, the extent of The Animal Project’s plot, which is why it proves meritorious that Veninger develops some interesting characters. Leo, Sam and Saul are all multidimensional. Even better, Leo and Sam’s father-son relationship forms a terrific emotional core, one that produces several moments of intense feeling, both when the two argue and when they reconcile. 


The relationship between Leo and Saul, however, is less skillfully written. Though Leo probably is not gay, the two men share odd, underexplored sexual tension. Even by the end of the movie, we do not fully understand how these two men relate, or why they do so. Perhaps that is why The Animal Project is best when it focuses on Sam or Leo.

Or maybe it’s because the rest of the acting class characters are all undeveloped. Of them, Pippa (Jessica Greco) is the best, but that’s mostly because she’s intimately connected to both Leo and Sam. Ray (Emmanuel Kabongo) is worst. Alice (Hannah Cheesman), Jason (Jonathon Sousa), and Mira (Sarena Parmar) fall somewhere in the middle. In the end, even Pippa is underwritten, which means none of the secondary characters resonate, and The Animal Project stumbles every time it focuses on one of them, which it does semi-frequently. The film probably would have been better if it had been less ensemble and placed greater priority on Leo, Sam and Saul. 


Still, The Animal Project is far from bad in its current form. With several laugh-out-loud funny moments and terrific acting performances all around (especially from Poole, Switzer, Klein and Greco), it is entertaining and occasionally moving. Not to mention worth viewing. 

3 out of 5 reels


What do you think of these two films? Intriguing enough for you?

16 thoughts on “MSPIFF14 Reviews: Proxy and The Animal Project

  1. I like it when directors take chances and employ interesting devices to build suspension, transition of time, etc. Sounds like that was a positive of ‘Proxy’ but without character development, it’s not worth it. Great review.

    1. That is definitely Proxy’s greatest strength. And I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say it isn’t worth – if you find it for a cheap rental, it is an above-average thriller.

      Just not as memorable as it might have been with better developed characters.

    1. Proxy bears many a great similarity to Polanski, actually. Interesting that you picked up on that from my review when I was careful not to directly say it. 🙂

      And sick of movies? Never. 🙂

    1. They are, in their way. Obviously, I think The Animal Project a touch better, though it too is flawed. Both are worth rentals if you find yourself with a couple hours to kill and unsure what to do.

  2. Pingback: MSPIFF14: Third Roundup | jjames reviews

  3. The Animal Project is a film that I kept debating about whether or not I should see when it played TIFF. It looks my choice to wait for video was wise one. Still interested in seeing it, but will temper my expectations a bit.

    1. Given all of the movies we can see at festivals, waiting probably wasn’t a terribly big mistake. Though it is certainly worth viewing.

      I look forward to reading your thoughts once you’ve seen it.

  4. I believe that I will a lot more out of Proxy than you did haha! It is already available and I am planning to rent it sometime soon! The sexist argument in horror films is kind of silly though! I know you did not say it so I’m not targeting this towards you…but I would get turned off reading Slant magazines review. If a horror film features dudes in the primary role, they will be treated the exact same. You need crazy characters and the like for a story like this and you also need them to be somewhat weak.

    I’ll likely watch Animal Project as well! The premise sounds interesting and weird. You know I’m into that kind of stuff…

    1. I hear what your saying vis a vis sexism in horror movies. I don’t think it’s that simple, though, particularly in a movie like Proxy, wherein females are the heart and soul, and wherein horror is secondary to thriller. In its case, it is even more problematic, because it does try to develop quality characters, which means a bit of nuance would be wise. I do think you’ll like the flick more than me!

      And Animal Project . . . interesting and weird is also right. It’s the primary reason I was excited to see the flick. And I still enjoyed it. A lot. I think you will, too.

  5. Tom

    More interesting films! Gosh guys. . . slow down just a little bit. . .hahaha

    The Animal Project I remember seeing something really briefly about but then I lost track of it, glad to see it resurface here!! I must look into that, it looks just the right amount of bizarre/quirky to suit my tastes.

    As for Proxy. . .nah.

  6. Proxy sounds like it could have potential to be a good thriller? Or am I completely off? Animal Project seems to have that emotional appeal that I like from films. Kinda of a guy, interesting idea for a movie and those costumes look funny!

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