Decriminalizing marijuana may have a dual benefit for the criminal justice system, judging by what we see in American Animals.

First, it declutters a system over-burdened with low-level offenders. Second, it apparently makes perpetrators of actual crimes — like the theft depicted here — much easier to investigate and apprehend.

Pot haze hangs over the college students who, in the fact-based (and formally inventive) American Animals, spend their days cutting class and soccer practice, toking, and watching Hollywood heist movies.

Warren Lipka (Evan Peters) is already operating a fake-ID business. And when his friend Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) mentions that his school's library features $20 million in rare books, guarded only by a lady librarian, a question begins to form and grow in their dorm-room Petri dish of idleness, Hollywood heist-movie fantasy, and pot:

Could we?

A related question — should we? — never comes up. One of the books they aim to steal is a first edition of Darwin's On the Origin of Species, and director Bart Layton implies the young men resent the bourgeoisie origin of their own suburban species and have no interest in a college track that furthers this life. They want to make a mark, by hook or by crook.

The gung-ho Lipka likes what heist movies say about "extraordinary effort," and Reinhard is an art major who has internalized Hollywood ideas that link the production of art with suffering and celebrity. If he gets caught and goes to jail — well, maybe that will make him a better artist.

We know this because we hear it form the horse's mouth. While Keoghan plays the character, the real Reinhard pops up periodically to tell us what he was thinking at the time (as do other perpetrators, their parents, and their victims). This genre-bending comprises the very structure of American Animals. Director Layton makes a conventional narrative film, a companion documentary, splices them together, and actually blends them — putting real people in dramatized scenes.

Part of this is to illustrate the subjectivity of narrative. The young men tell self-serving stories to each other, to themselves, perhaps to us. Layton makes all of this lucid, and there are times his merger of doc and drama works well. A clever fantasy sequence dramatizes the crime as the young men wish it would unfold, and stands in strong counterpoint to the actual robbery, a sweaty nightmare of unforeseen obstacles and consequences. Reality hits the young men hard, even if morality never sinks in.

There are other highlights — Layton inserts the real Reinhard into a dramatized scene, and we watch him standing on a curb as the conspirators drive by, watching the younger version of himself about to make the biggest mistake of his life.

I've never seen anything like it, and I would have found it persuasive had I not read the 2007 Vanity Fair article based on interviews with the young men in prison. In that piece, they are unrepentant, and joke about preferring prison life to college life. They say their Epic Fail was designed to obliterate any chance of ever returning to their soulless suburban lives.

Perhaps that pose was itself borrowed from movies — traditionally, rejection of a cookie-cutter middle-class life has on screen been an emblem of rebellious cool. It's interesting to note that in the case of these American Animals, it's being written off as just another form of white privilege.

MOVIES

American Animals

  • Directed by Bart Layton. With Even Peters, Barry Keoghan, Ann Dowd, Eric Abrahamson and Blake Jenner. Distributed by The Orchard.
  • Parents guide: R (drug use, language, violence)
  • Running time: 2 hours
  • Playing at: Ritz Five