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'American Animals' blends fiction and documentary

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One of this year’s Sundance darlings, American Animals opened the Florida Film Festival in April. The second feature from writer-director Bart Layton, Animals bombastically announces that it’s not based on a true story – it IS a true story. And thanks to its half-documentary, half-narrative-fiction format, that announcement is spot-on.

Although its unique structure – think Warren Beatty’s Reds – might seem gimmicky at first, it grows on you, despite some inconsistent pacing. And by the film’s end, you have a clear understanding of 10 people: the five leads in the fictional part of the film and their five real-life (non-actor) counterparts. You might also come to embrace the movie’s playful, meta-theatrical, deconstructionist sensibility.

Animals focuses on a heist gone wrong in Lexington, Kentucky, but it’s less about the robbery and more about how the events affected the lives of the four young men who planned the job (and the victim). The film stars Barry Keoghan (who was brilliant in Dunkirk and The Killing of a Sacred Deer), Evan Peters, Jared Abrahamson and Blake Jenner. The latter, a Florida native, plays Chas Allen, one of the four thieves. Jenner represented the film at the Florida Film Festival, and I spoke to him recently about the movie and the future of Florida filmmaking.

“I’m a big fan of documentaries, and also I love [movies] like this where you see the lead characters kind of go from one to 10 in different forms of emotion, so it kind of checked all those boxes for me and excited me as an actor. And I just wanted it so bad, and I was excited to sink my teeth into it,” Jenner says.

Jenner might be best known for winning The Glee Project in 2012, which earned him a role in Glee. He also starred in The Edge of Seventeen, Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!!! and Florida Film Festival favorite Shawn Christensen’s The Vanishing of Sidney Hall. But because of its unique structure, American Animals was a new experience for Jenner, who says his excitement began upon reading the script.

“I just found it fascinating,” he says. “It was no less of a wild ride and a rollercoaster reading it than it is watching it. And it’s the kind of project that you’re kind of on the edge of your seat, in disbelief at times. And you could be about to write this off, saying there’s no way, no way in hell [that the events happened]. But then you have the real counterparts … validating the story. … So it seemed like such an entertaining and such an unconventional way of telling this type of story.”

Raised in Miami, Jenner left the Sunshine State for Los Angeles after graduating high school. He admits that a stronger Florida film industry probably wouldn’t have prevented his move to California, as he says he always longed to “flee the nest [and] spread my wings.” But he says more movie production – buoyed by tax incentives – would be a boon for Florida.

“Absolutely! I’d love to see more things made in Florida, for sure, especially seeing movies like Moonlight come out of Florida. Let’s make more heartfelt things like this,” Jenner says, adding that he would like to write a movie about Miami and shoot it there. “I would love to write a script that kind of came from my being a kid in Miami … and having like a diverse group of friends and kind of seeing how you make it through childhood to adulthood. That would be awesome. I’d love to see that happen.”