‘We the Animals’ Exposes the Pain and Rhapsody of Childhood
Jeremiah Zagar’s narrative debut follows three half-Puerto Rican brothers dealing with family discord and coming of age in upstate New York, and it packs an emotional punch.
The first thing you notice about Jonah (Evan Rosado), the gentle 10-year-old at the center of We the Animals, are his eyes: wide and limpid and silky sky-blue. They cast about the world with a mixture of innocence and insight, like an angel with x-ray vision. Reflections of their pale shade emerge throughout the movie: on the walls of Jonah’s dysfunctional family home; on the ringing corded phone his occasionally catatonic mother refuses to answer; in the thin lines dividing the notebook pages Jonah writes and sketches in every night.
A work of piercing feeling and effortless artistry, We the Animals plays like a mosaic of mood and childhood memories, charting the growth of Jonah and his rowdy older brothers, Manny (Isaiah Kristian) and Joel (Josiah Gabriel), through a casual series of vignettes. The first narrative effort from documentarian Jeremiah Zagar (In a Dream, Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart), the film is adapted from Justin Torres’ lyrical, semi-autobiographical novel of the same name. Like its source material, We the Animals spins on an axis of vigorous subjectivity; we’re acutely aware that everything we see is being filtered through Jonah’s observant blue peepers.
When the film opens, there is little that Jonah and his brothers don’t share. They eat together. They walk in tandem. They sleep entwined. “We wanted more. More volume. More muscle,” Jonah’s voiceover reflects, as the boys yell and run and romp. “Us three. Us kings. Us brothers.” Their aquamarine house is remote and rundown and their parents glum and lethargic from working blue-collar night shifts, but their union as a threesome and affection for their rural upstate New York surroundings suggest something of a childhood idyll.
Volatility cuts through the bliss in the form of their father (Raul Castillo), known to us only as Paps. In cheery moods, Paps, who is Puerto-Rican, sings and dances around the kitchen to Spanish music. “Shake it like you’re rich,” he says to the boys, sticking a pinky in the air. “Put those noses up!” Ma (Sheila Vand), who is white with a thick Brooklyn accent, shakes her head and chuckles before joining in. But they all know it won’t last. The song will end, turbulence and money struggles will linger. Not long after, an offscreen skirmish leaves Ma with a bloody lip and Paps rushing out the door with a suitcase.
How best to raise the boys is a frequent source of discord between the parents. Upon a trip to the lake, while Manny and Joel have no problem diving in, Jonah watches from the sidelines. Finally, he gingerly takes a dip before running back to Ma, who’s waiting with arms wide open to wrap him in a towel. Pa has other plans. Instructing Jonah and Ma (who can’t swim either) to hold onto his back, he swims out into the middle of the lake before releasing both of them. Sink or swim, Pa believes, is the only way to learn.
Other areas of Jonah’s life feel like equally suffocating tests of his strength and manhood. As much as he admires and seeks to emulate his big brothers—especially in their endurance of parental friction—Jonah is coming to terms with a sexuality that he understands to be aberrant from that of his family. When a neighborhood boy invites Jonah and his brothers to the basement to watch porn, Jonah gazes in wonder: at the television, at the blonde boy, back to the screen.
We get to know Jonah’s psyche through his drawings. At night, while his brothers sleep above, he wedges himself under the bed, armed with crayons and a notebook. There, he embraces his private thoughts with spectacular doodles—illustrations that come alive in rhapsodic animated sequences (hand-drawn by Mark Samsonovich) to reveal Jonah’s innermost worries and desires. Like his uncanny blue-eyed gaze, the sketches are at once a realistic expression of his youth and an enchanting display of sensitivity and sophistication.
Visually, We the Animals is stunning. In outdoor moments, the camera often observes the brothers from afar, placing the boys within their rustic environment like animals in the wild. Indoors, the camera—almost always in handheld—will wander through the halls from a child’s height or fall in extreme close-up on faces and other objects of fascination.
For a film this small and focused to pack such an emotional punch is a feat. There’s a deep sadness in watching the brothers grow apart, finding their own routes to self-discovery and the stamina required to endure their turbulent upbringing. But there’s a beauty too, one that Zagar locates and exposes in cryptic atmospheric cues and earthly symbols—the water where Jonah nearly drowned, the mud that accumulates outside their decrepit home. Life, the movie seems to say, is full of mini-revelations that can be puzzling and sometimes painful. All we can do is stay afloat.