While the world was grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, French director Thomas Cailley was imagining another kind of coronavirus, one he’d cooked up before the crisis, but which suddenly took on new real-world relevance. In “The Animal Kingdom,” a mysterious malady is sweeping France, unlocking something at a genetic level that causes people to transform into hybrid creatures. The mutations are slow and somewhat unpredictable: One person might sprout feathers, observing over weeks as their arms develop into wings, while another grows scales and winds up slithering like a snake.
Through it all, 16-year-old Émile (Paul Kircher) and his father, François (Romain Duris), are just trying to stay calm, which isn’t easy when something akin to a zombie apocalypse has left the entire country jittery and suspicious. What’s causing the mutations? Is it contagious? Can the creatures be trusted, or are they a threat to others? A scar on Émile’s cheek, acquired during the early days of his mother’s infection, offers a hint of the risk. People are understandably frightened of the unknown, but scarier still is the possibility that the same could happen to them.
Cailley, who captured France’s attention (but less so the rest of the world’s) with “Love at First Fight,” builds on the potential shown in that debut, concentrating on the father-son dynamic between François and Émile more than the elaborate supernatural situation that surrounds them. “The Animal Kingdom” isn’t a traditional genre movie so much as a coming-of-age story with a creature-feature twist — picture a moody French “Teen Wolf,” minus the laughs. The project calls for more VFX than you might expect from an art film, though Cailley mostly takes the M. Night Shyamalan approach, which is to say, he suggests more than he shows.
Even so, the director is willing to risk the ridiculous en route to the emotional truths he seeks. Stumble even for a moment, and the whole movie could feel silly, which is what makes the fact that it works all the more remarkable. Kircher, who played a queer teenager in tailspin after the death of his dad in Christophe Honoré’s “Winter Boy,” comes across even more vulnerable and self-questioning here, especially after his character realizes that he may also be infected. Almost overnight, Émile feels stronger, and his hearing has grown sharper. Tiny claws protrude from beneath his fingernails, and he’s getting hair in places that puberty can’t account for.
Those common-enough body-horror tropes don’t feel quite as original as the movie’s other elements, although suspense — which Cailley maintains throughout — takes a back seat to psychology as the story unfolds. As Émile’s secrecy and fear of discovery become more acute, I was reminded of Julia Ducournau’s “Raw,” in which a young woman gradually discovers that she shares her parents’ cannibal appetites. That film is darker, but also deals with the adolescent anxiety of inheriting certain damning traits from one’s parents, as well as concealing aspects of one’s home life from classmates, who have a tendency to be cruel.
At school, Émile takes an interest in Nina (Billie Blain) but senses the need to be discreet. One morning, he and François meet a local cop, Julia (Adèle Exarchopoulos), after a transport vehicle packed with “critters” — Émile’s mother included — goes off the road, releasing the hybrids into the woods. It would’ve been nice to get more of Exarchopoulos’ character, who suggests a way forward for the family, still holding out hope that science will find a cure for — or else society will come to accept — what’s happening to Émile’s mother.
The more time passes, the more “evolved” the transformations become, overwhelming any trace of humanity in those who are infected. In the opening scene, Émile and his father are startled to see a mutant bird-man (“Synonyms” star Tom Mercier) burst free from a white-and-blue emergency vehicle that’s like a cross between an ambulance and an animal control van. Later, they come across the same creature in the woods, looking more fully fledged. “Fix” (as he calls himself) is accompanied by “Froggy,” a girl who climbs trees and appears to be turning into a chameleon.
No two of the film’s hybrids share the same traits, which keeps things interesting. What kind of animal is Émile becoming, we wonder? And how long can he safely remain around Nina and his father? But that’s also a problem for the movie’s drawn-out and relatively disappointing last act, in which a posse assembles during the regional Saint Jean festival and chases Émile through the cornfields. The boy-beast manages to find a community of fellow mutants in the wild, his mother among them, but the notion that such creatures (predators and prey alike) might peacefully coexist feels naive. By the end, Cailley seems to be making some kind of statement about ecology and humans repairing their relationship to nature, whereas “The Animal Kingdom” is strongest when the pandemic seems abstract, leaving more — including its message — to the imagination.