Film Review: We The Animals

Coming-Of-Age Drama Paints Impressionistic Portrait Of Preteen Life

Devin D. O'Leary
4 min read
We the Animals
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Filmmaker Jeremiah Zagar (In a Dream, Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart) takes his history with short films and documentaries and spins it into his first narrative feature, an impressive, impressionistic portrait of imperfect childhood. Taking its cue from other, unhurried snapshots of youth like Boyhood, Moonlight and The Florida Project, this vivid memoir spills out a series of incidents that slowly coalesce into an adolescent tale of masculine self-discovery.

Manny (Isaiah Kristian), Joel (Josiah Gabriel), and Jonah (Evan Rosado) are a trio of preteen Puerto Rican boys growing up in semi-rural Pennsylvania. They are constant kinetic sculptures, forever running, forever screaming at the top of their lungs, forever engaging in the meaningless, made-up rituals of childhood. They are, in short, boys. Their parents, referred to only as Ma (Sheila Vand from
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night) and Paps (Raúl Castillo, “Looking”), are a volatile pair. Their love for one another and their children is palpable, visible, visceral.

In the midst of what looks like an endless summer vacation and unburdened from such social niceties as school, the boys tear through the woods, living shirtless and making up silly children’s games. Occasionally, they intersect with their parents. In the bits and pieces kids tend to observe, we soon realize that Ma and Paps’ relationship is a strained one. Their anger runs as hot as their love, and the obviously unsettled economic conditions they live under are contributing to tensions that the boys glimpse mostly in late-night, behind-closed-doors screaming sessions.

Following one particularly ugly family row, Paps disappears into the night, suitcase in hand. This sudden turn of events leaves mom on her own to raise the boys. She slides quickly into a paralytic depression, however, leaving Manny, Joel and Jonah to fend for themselves. This Peter Pan-like existence is seen mostly through the eyes of Jonah, the youngest boy. He narrates the film in scattered snatches of thought. Obviously the most sensitive of the young brothers, Jonah spends most nights huddled under his bed, scrawling shadowy pictures in his notebook. Often, these images intrude into the film itself as crude, hand-drawn animations, giving the whole thing a dreamy, artistic quality.

Eventually, Paps returns, full of apologies, but the family dynamic is forever changed. Ma now seems forever jaded by the experience, and the boys are less able to shut out the reality of their parents’ relationship. Jonah, in particular, struggles to deal with the situation and the feelings it brings up in him.

We the Animals speaks to both the resiliency and the impressionability of youth. All the domestic troubles surrounding these boys will undoubtedly have a lifelong effect. On a day-to-day basis, however, it seems like so much peripheral noise—mixed, in equal measure, with TV shows, tickle fights and trips to the river. Even in the depths of their mother’s crushing depression, when they’re forced to steal food from a neighborhood store to survive, they feel like playful, ordinary kids. But as time wears on and the tensions between their parents rise, the boys grow increasingly unruly and ungoverned. What will become of them?

As a filmmaker, Zagar demonstrates the ability to turn on an emotional dime. Though the film meanders like a parade of gauzy, half-recalled memories, there’s a tension from start to finish—thanks in large part to the way certain scenes pop, sharply and specifically, from the screen. In one sequence, Pap is angry with himself and the universe after getting fired from yet another job. He angrily slaps the bed of his broken-down truck. For a stunned moment, the boys watch and absorb the image of their macho father on the verge of tears. On instinct, one of them slaps the truck as well. Then another. Soon, the moment transforms into an energetic, tension-releasing drum session. It’s moments like that that give
We the Animals an unshakable verisimilitude.

Zagar pulls raw performances from his actors, both young and old, while the symbol-laden cinematography (courtesy of Zak Mulligan) weaves a primal world of earth, water, leaves and rain around them. Capped off by a complex score from Nick Zammuto,
We the Animals emerges as a painfully specific, sadly universal vision of the confusion and chaos that is childhood.
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