We the Animals is a powerful, vérité-style coming of age story.
We the Animals, the narrative feature debut of documentary filmmaker Jeremiah Zagar (In a Dream) which he and Dan Kitrosser adapted from Justin Torres’ 2011 novel of the same name, is a powerful, vérité-style coming of age story. Filmed on 16mm film to emphasize the dreaminess of childhood and the ’90s setting, We the Animals is obviously inspired by the work of auteurs like Terrence Malick but is also admirably distinctive, given its minority central family and queer-centered plot. Comparisons will be made to Moonlight, but We the Animals is a dreamier, less-focused film than Barry Jenkins’ Best Picture winner. Kitrosser is more concerned with evoking the wild nature of childhood and of family life in general than he is with hammering out a concise plot.
Set in upstate New York in the early ’90s, We the Animals follows young brothers Manny, Joel and narrator Jonah and their parents Ma and Paps. Despite Ma and Paps’ volatile relationship, the boys share a close bond. However, as their parents’ relationship degenerates, Jonah begins to understand that he is different from his brothers, setting them all on a trajectory destined to end in heartache.
The three boys are all portrayed with an effective mix of curiosity, mischief and sadness by nonprofessional actors Evan Rosado, Josiah Gabriel and Isaiah Kristian, while Ma is played by Iranian-American actress Sheila Vand (Argo) and Paps is played by Raúl Castillo (TV’s “Looking”). Vand and particularly Castillo are mesmerizing, making their combustible relationship simultaneously appealing and devastating.
Much like Torres’ sensitive, surprising novel, Zagar manages give We the Animals a child’s heart, even in its saddest moments. He’s aided in this by Mark Samsonovich, who animates Jonah’s drawings, giving the film’s aesthetic a melancholy but youthful lifeline in the same way animation aided J.A. Bayona’s underseen A Monster Calls. It’s a risky move for such an earthy film but, perhaps because of his experience in documentaries, Zagar sews the disparate components of his film together into a cohesive, intelligent whole.
The character of Paps is Puerto Rican, and this is perhaps the element that makes We the Animals feel the most timely. Though it’s set in the ‘90s, this is a film for today, and as Latinx people find themselves under attack in this country it is vital that their presence be seen and felt on screens. Admirably, Zagar and company don’t back away from making Paps occasionally villainous. Just as women are finally being allowed to be bad onscreen, We the Animals shows us Latinx characters who behave badly at times but are always completely human. In this age where Latinx people are being dehumanized in the United States, these kind of human screen portrayals are more than nice; they’re necessary.
Part of the particular magic of We the Animals is the way in which it turns the seemingly mundane events of childhood into mythic moments. Swimming lessons become Herculean efforts; finding dinner becomes an Arthurian quest; the discovery of porn is an existential riddle. This is what good films about children do: they recapture how capital I Important childhood events are. Many directors of children forget to attach the necessary weight to children’s stories, but Zagar succeeds.
We the Animals is deceptively low-key. But those who engage it will find a magical, important film that examines what it means to be a brother and a son, to be brown and to be queer in America. Its deceptive power lies in its ability to show the world through a child’s eyes without covering those eyes for the adult moments.