American Animals is a true story, not based on one like most movie adaptations will disclaim. I wasn't sure what the difference was as I saw this line in both the trailer and on the title card. I'll tell you what the difference is, this film is narrated by the real-life subjects of the film. This is the story of the 2004 heist of several very rare books by four young men from a college library in Kentucky.
This movie felt like I, Tonya if the real Tonya Harding et al. were giving the commentary, but unlike that film, I didn't know how this story ended. I could guess because this was the true story of what had to be one of the most ill-advised heists in history. I mean truly dumb kids doing a really dumb thing. There were conflicting points of view from the people involved surrounding certain plot points in the story which made for a very entertaining thrill ride.
The movie plays out like reenactments with exquisitely placed commentary by the actual people from the events, including their parents. All the absurd decisions along the way had a perfect look, sigh, or quip about it by one of those involved. I can't understate how well it portrays the action with the sobering guilt all involved have looking back and re-telling the events. Those confessional moments are all compelling and honest, and some are just plain humorous. The real Spencer Reinhard had a lot of profound things to say about what they did and how he feels about it now. They are a real-life cast of characters themselves.
I thought Evan Peters was especially great as the "not-ring leader" of the group, Warren Lipka. He had all the necessary recklessness balanced with just the right nuance. Barry Keoghan as Spencer Reinhard brings a lot of layers to the story full of thoughtfulness, reservation and sometimes total abandon as his friend Warren pulls him along for the ride. Jared Abrahamson and Blake Jenner do a fine job of bringing to life math wiz Eric Borsuk and moneybags Chas Allen respectively. Both get their shining moments in the film.
It was a well-made film with really interesting camera work, great editing and direction. Director Barry Layton does a solid job of getting into the key motivating factors of each of their involvement in the heist. The planing and action of the heist itself is total chaos and will totally suck you in. Layton balances the chaos by using silence in this film really well and at just the right moments. It leaves the audience just enough time to sit with their thoughts about what they're experiencing. I'd be remiss not to mention the music of the film (which I've been listening to while writing this). It is stirring and a perfect complement to the build of the heist.
I feel this movie hasn't gotten the attention it deserves from the general public. I mentioned to a few people I was going to see this and they had no idea what I was talking about. If you have a chance, go see this film. It almost feels like the antithesis to Ocean's 8 (which I loved in a different way). It's wildly entertaining and a unique spin on what a true story adaptation can be.
Brit's pro tip: If you don't know anything about this story, don't look it up before. Let this one play out on screen.