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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

From the title "Animal Kingdom," you might think the Australian film that opens today in New York and Los Angeles is a nature documentary. Bob Mondello says it is a story about survival of the fittest, just not in the great outdoors.

BOB MONDELLO: When we first see 17-year-old Josh Cody, he's sitting with his mom in a suburban Melbourne apartment, watching TV. He's absorbed enough in his game show that until the medics arrive, you don't register that his mother isn't breathing.

A heroin overdose, probably wasn't much of a mom, so it says something that Josh will now go to live with the family she'd spent most of her life trying to protect him from - uncles for whom even a casual traffic stop with a stranger talking tough from another car...

(Soundbite of film, "Animal Kingdom")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Hey, have you got a staring problem, mate?

MONDELLO: ...prompts an instinctual rush for dominance. Violence is so ingrained with this family that on his first day with them, Josh gets handed a gun and told to act like a predator.

(Soundbite of film, "Animal Kingdom")

Unidentified Man #2: (As character) Go get him.

Unidentified Man #3: (As Josh) And do what?

Unidentified Man #2: Let him know who's king.

MONDELLO: So Josh steps out of the car...

(Soundbite of film, "Animal Kingdom")

Unidentified Man #4: (As character) Come on, come outside.

MONDELLO: ...and points the gun.

(Soundbite of film, "Animal Kingdom")

Unidentified Man #5 (Actor): (As character) Hey, hey, hey, whoa, whoa, whoa, brother. Just relax man. I'm just going to have a chat with you, all right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #5 (Actor): (As character) Just chill, bro.

Unidentified Man #4 (Actor): (As character) Get out of here, man.

MONDELLO: Welcome to the jungle, suburban style: white, picket fences and beasts of prey.

If Josh's uncles are thugs, they're wildly differing thugs. The one egging him on there actually qualifies as their class act. There's another who's forever hopped up on drugs, and one who'd probably be better off if doctors could get his drug mix right. They're all casually lethal.

But it's their mom, the queen bee of this brood, you shouldn't take your eyes off: a granny who dresses too young, whips up energy shakes as her boys plot crime sprees, and tops them all for sheer cold-bloodedness.

She has, for decades, watched over her children. And no one, not even this new grandchild who has come into her life, can be permitted to endanger them. She makes that clear with an eerie mildness when Josh gets spirited away to a police safe house, and she goes not to a lawyer, but to a corrupt cop.

(Soundbite of film, "Animal Kingdom")

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. JACKI WEAVER (Actor): (As Janine Cody) Tell me if you agree with this. This boy who's being looked after - he knows who you are, and you've done some bad things, sweetie, haven't you? It shouldn't be too hard to set up a raid on a house.

There'd be reasonable grounds, what with all the strange activity, the comings and goings day and night. One of the neighbors (unintelligible) a gun or something. This is your area of expertise. I'm not trying to tell you how to suck eggs. I feel sick about this. I'm not happy at all, not one little bit, but we do what we have to do. We do what we must.

MONDELLO: Actress Jacki Weaver hasn't been heard of much in this country since appearing 35 years ago in "Picnic at Hanging Rock," but this part in "Animal Kingdom" may change that.

The film also features Guy Pearce as a low-key detective who tries to help Josh, and newcomer James Frecheville as the increasingly endangered teenager.

First-time writer-director David Michod reportedly worked for eight years on his screenplay, deepening its tale of a violently dysfunctional family until its gangster conventions feel as if they're in the service of a modern-day Greek tragedy - well, Australian tragedy, though "Animal Kingdom," as its title implies, feels pretty universal.

I'm Bob Mondello.

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