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Tribeca Film Festival 2017: ‘Aardvark’ Plays It Too Safe

The aardvark is a weird, fascinating animal. This nocturnal creature survives on ants and termites, which it digs out with its massive claws, pig-like snout, and prehistoric legs. It prefers to escape to a burrow rather than fight, but is more than capable of doing some serious damage. The aardvark is content in solitude and darkness, but Aardvark‘s namesake makes an appearance during a zoo visit for young brothers Josh and Craig in the opening scene. It’s clear that Josh is connecting with his spirit animal of sorts, before his older brother harasses him. Years later, a grown-up Josh (Zachary Quinto) is in therapy with social worker Emily Milburton (Jenny Slate) to deal with his undiagnosed mental illness, hallucinations, and extreme isolation. He believes Craig keeps showing up in character as various townspeople, and his frustration with these seeming antics escalates into violence.

Meanwhile, Emily isn’t nearly as together as she seems. She doesn’t sleep. She’s alone and awkward, unable to navigate healthy boundaries or relationships. Into the lives of these two solitary people lands Craig (Jon Hamm) – charming, magnetic, personable, and well-recognized. He arrives to sell the empty family home long after their parent’s death, while avoiding Josh, not sure how to navigate his brother’s fragile emotional state and worshipful obsession with him. Emily and Craig begin a passionate relationship that she keeps from her client, while Josh himself begins a relationship with Hannah (Shelia Vand), a woman who may or may not be real. As Emily sees Josh spiraling out of control, she makes a move that will change all of their lives.

The sense of isolation and disconnection is palpable, but so severe it feels like Aardvark is turning away from its audience. It remains resolutely obtuse throughout, as if the film itself prefers its solitude over inviting viewers into these characters’ lives. Aardvark is billed as a dramedy, and it suffers from trying to span those two genres, such as when the actors seem unsure whether their scenes are serious or funny. It would have done better to dive fully into the deliciously dark comedy, as in its attempt to also assert poignancy, it often feels stilted and flat.

Aardvark also flounders by never specifying Josh’s mental illness. The haziness creates an easy out for an ending that is wildly unrealistic for people who suffer from true mental illness. A change in circumstances or simple conversation doesn’t offer an instant cure in the real world, and it felt outdated to suggest it. The film seems to push that Josh is supposed to take after an animal whose innately happy on its own in the dark, but suggesting that human connection “fixes” him makes the constant aardvark references confusing. Zachary Quinto succeeds in creating a character who is dark, creepy, and lost in his hallucinations, but his character suffers by portraying a mental illness that no one can diagnose, one that also seems to disappear in a way completely unrelated to how actual mental illness works. It seems to leave Quinto a bit too much in the dark about who his character is and what’s going to reach him.

A story about a sensitive, odd guy who falls apart without the love and attention of his older brother can be a beautiful one. A scene where the brothers finally reconnect does get there through a heart-felt, genuine performance by Jon Hamm, and he shows off his star quality, bringing warmth and light even when he’s unlikable. Jenny Slate’s performance as a struggling therapist is the best thing about this movie, however; subtle, nuanced, and vulnerable, Slate continues to prove her tremendous range. For a debut film, it’s an impressive cast, and they do some great work here.

This was on my most anticipated list, but considering how inherently and shamelessly weird its homage creature is, Aardvark just wasn’t quite weird enough.

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