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True-life heist story 'American Animals' is one of summer's freshest and most entertaining films

"American Animals" is a true story of four college students who plan on stealing the most valuable book in the United States from their school library.

It begins with the usual heist film maneuvers: watches are synchronized, license plates changed, disguises applied. But "American Animals" is not like other criminal stories and the differences make it one of the summer's freshest, most entertaining films.

To begin with, the miscreants in this smart and lively based-on-fact drama are not case-hardened criminals of the "Asphalt Jungle" variety; they're a quartet of bored college kids looking for kicks and meaning in their lives in equal measure.

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And the treasure they are after is not jewels or gold bullion but books, in fact arguably the most valuable volumes in the world: a multi-part oversize set of John James Audubon's legendary "Birds of America," valued at close to $12 million.

Best of all, writer-director Bart Layton has chosen to tell this story in an unconventional way that adds poignancy and depth to the proceedings.

A former documentary director (the excellent "The Imposter"), Layton has elegantly interspersed the drama of "American Animals" with snippets of interviews with the real quartet of criminal schemers whose stories are being told.

More than that, Layton deftly plays around with narrative structure and the nature of memory, including making full use of the fact that each of the four participants remembers things slightly differently.

If one of the gang thinks the scarf of a key player is blue and another says it’s purple, the color changes in front of our eyes. This may sound like a gimmick but it plays as anything but, giving "American Animals" a welcome and unexpected level of seriousness to go along with its lively sense of fun.

Working with veteran casting director Avy Kaufman, Layton made shrewd choices for the actors playing the quartet, and selecting gifted players who are not yet household names adds to the story's verisimilitude.

The film's setting is the all-American town of Lexington, Ky., where Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) is an incoming freshman at Transylvania University. (Yes, it's a real institution.)

An aspiring artist from a loving, affluent family, Spencer would seem to have not a problem in the world, which is where his problem comes in. Spencer feels he should be having some kind of wrenching, life-altering experience if he is to reach his potential as an artist. Which is where Warren Lipka enters the scene.

Spencer's closest friend since high school and now enrolled in the University of Kentucky, Warren (Evan Peters), is a classic loose cannon, the kind of live wire that made the phlegmatic Spencer feel more alive whenever they hung out together.

It's on an incoming freshman tour of the library's special collections room that it hits Spencer: The room contains, as Warren later explains to a pair of new recruits (played by Jared Abrahamson and Blake Jenner), "$12 million in rare books and only one old lady guarding it."

The plan starts like a college prank on steroids, with Warren googling "how to plan a perfect bank robbery" and the two guys watching a series of heist movies, including "Ocean’s Eleven" and "Snatch," to get the hang of their kicky new endeavor.

Because they are so inept — not only do they not know a fence, they are unfamiliar with the term — and the actors playing them are so convincing, the “Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight” exploits of Spencer and Warren are initially quite funny, even recalling the classic Italian comedy "Big Deal on Madonna Street."

But the heart of writer-director Layton's approach is to allow audiences to see how seductive planning a robbery is for delusional, entitled kids who have no conception of real-world consequences and who've always been told they are different, special, not part of the herd.

Yes, from time to time they have vague inklings that they're getting in over their heads, but working on the plans gave purpose and meaning to their lives. The idea was just too exciting for anyone to call a halt to the proceedings.

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Things inevitably get more serious, and one contributing factor is the strong performance by Ann Dowd (Emmy winner for "The Handmaid's Tale") as Betty Jean Gooch, the "old lady" who steadfastly guards the library's treasures.

Juggling all these elements — crossing fiction with nonfiction and making a film that is simultaneously serious, funny and unexpected — would be impressive for anyone, but for a debuting narrative director like Layton it’s especially so.

While the participants in "American Animals" only imagine they're different, the film about them is the real deal.

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'American Animals'

Rated: R, for language throughout, some drug use and brief crude/sexual material

Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes

Playing: Arclight, Hollywood; Landmark, West Los Angeles

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