A Surreal and Sometimes Harsh Navigation Through Childhood and Coming of Age Tale
Title: We the Animals
Rating: Rated R for Strong Sexual Content, Nudity, Language and Some Underage Drug and Alcohol Use
Run Time: 1hr & 34mins
*** (out of ****)
We the Animals has no plot. Do not take this as a criticism. It is, instead, an observation. Writer/director Jeremiah Zagar, making his narrative feature debut, wants to immerse us in the experiences of the film’s trio of children – brothers living with their parents in rural Upstate New York. The novel on which the film is based, written by Justin Torres and adapted by Zagar and co-screenwriter Dan Kitrosser, is a bildungsroman, after all. That literary style knows no established structure, so it would only make sense that the film adaptation adopts a similar attitude toward its characters.
And to be clear, these characters exist largely within their own heads. The brothers are Jonah (Evan Rosado), Joel (Josiah Gilbert), and Manny (Isaiah Kristian), and their parents are simply known to them as “Ma” (Sheila Vand) and “Paps” (Raúl Castillo). This is a series of volatile relationships, starting at the top when Paps punches Ma in the face during an argument and tries to pass it off as preparation for a visit to a dental hygienist. The detail is small but contains multitudes. In that moment, we understand how this household operates, with its violence kept secret with a series of white lies.
The film follows part of the family’s attempt to leave behind such an existence, with a series of speed bumps and one baffling reconciliation along the way. If nothing else, through the rhythms of the performances and the textures of the filmmaking, this family seems like a real one. Parents in an abusive relationship really do ebb and flow in and out of each other’s lives. After all, this man is the father of her children. Who can blame Ma for returning to Paps, even after the episode that leaves her bruised at the mouth and struggling to remember how she got in this state?
We know what the character should do, but Zagar’s film is all about current headspace, the decisions that inform the future, and the experiences that unite us. There is something elemental about that, both in the way the filmmaker strips the dramatic treatment to its bare essentials and in the way his attention to the atmosphere and landscape seems to drive the events of the movie. The performances from the child actors – two of whom (Rosado and Kristian) are newcomers altogether, with Gilbert having only two other credits to his name, both of which were released around the time of this movie – expertly mirror that formalistic tendency. All three are dependably naturalistic and unaffected.
When it comes to the parents of the piece, Castillo is quite good in a limited role as Paps, who has an anger issue and a problem with keeping a job. There’s a pitiful quality to the man that’s downright pathetic. Vand is superb as Ma, a woman who must swallow a lot of abuse and keep the peace for her children. The narrative, such as it is, eventually narrows its focus upon Jonah as he comes of age and connects to the wider world surrounding this tightknit family. A regular sojourn to a friend’s house, where an adult video channel opens a new avenue of feelings in young Jonah, is a chance for the trio to rebel.
Essentially, much of this film is truthful and honest in its portrayal of navigating childhood and the relationship from which childhood is possible in the first place. Even as the film never quite acknowledges a world outside of itself and slips into the routine of daily life, Zagar rarely slips in his focus on these characters and their worldview. We the Animals nails a very specific melding of tones – those of reverence to and rebellion from the strictures of a coming-of-age drama – and artfully deconstructs the very need to adhere to a definition of them. That is a significant achievement for such a modest, scrappy, surprisingly touching movie.
(Review by Joel Copling
(Review by Chase Lee)