Suffused in earthy atmosphere, director Jeremiah Zagar’s meticulous yet breezy feature film debut We the Animals is a worthy adaptation of Justin Torres’ smart, savage yet subtle book. Despite its use of light and shadow and quick edits, comparisons to Mallick are not necessarily on point. Whereas the legendary philosopher-turned-filmmaker often accompanies his euphoric images with cerebral narration by adult characters, Zagar finds the profundity in Torres’ first person narrative from the point of view of a child to capture the painful reconciliation a young person has with the realities of the world.
We the Animals captures the child’s perspective better than anything I’ve seen in recent memory. Primal and vivid, Zagar skips the book’s tricky blending of childhood memory spiced with the perspective of painful post-coming of age. The film is certainly rooted from the view of the three young brothers at the heart of the film, where parents are supporting players whose flippant actions have lasting effects, and the notion of parental influence is undermined by chance encounters and the unbridled verve of childhood. But most of all there’s the youngest (Evan Rosado), who is the unnamed narrator of the book, here the director and co-screenwriter Daniel Kitrosser have named him Jonah, who is having an awakening: he is gay.
The way in which the film touches on Jonah’s youthful queerness will remind some of Moonlight (Moonlight heightens intimacy with exquisitely tempered cinematic technique — a film review), but the plot is more intimately epic in its sprawling everythingness of childhood. There’s how the children process physical abuse between their imperfect but no less loving parents, not to mention a sense of desperate destitution that weighs on the adults. Though the film has a small set of primary characters, a nuclear family of two adults and three children, the range of issues it touches on are varied and complex as are the experiences of childhood: incidents that become DNA.
From youngest to oldest, Jonah, Joel (Josiah Gabriel) and Manny (Isaiah Kristian) are the pre-pubescent progeny of Puerto Rican parents they call Paps and Ma (Raúl Castillo and Sheila Vand) growing up in late 1980s or early 1990s Utica, New York. The boys find ways to distract themselves with toy cars, drawing, running through the woods. Meanwhile, their parents work hard to make ends meet, Ma bottling beer at a factory, Paps working as a late-night security guard at an empty building. Bed sheets are used as curtains in their modest wooden house, and DP Zak Mulligan makes the most of how the sun filters through the random colors of the sheets with a 16mm handheld camera. It’s raw, vivid camera work, but there’s also a stylistic flourish in the hand drawn animations depicting Jonah’s drawings in a journal illustrated by Mark Samsonovich. The cartoons last moments at a time, during voice over, and are woven into the action seamlessly, as are many of the disquieting scenes that inspire them.
A kinetic sense of pacing is key in highlighting the children’s acting with quick edits. The editing, by Keiko Deguchi and Brian A. Kates, also allows for brief scenes to feel impactful, Seconds can feel profound, as they often do in childhood trauma. For some reason, a 20 second montage that revealed the ages of the boys brought tears to this writer’s eyes. Ma is giving Jonah a bath when Paps casually blurts out how he first got Ma pregnant at 14 when she “sat in his lap.” Ma then whispers into Jonah’s ear, “out popped Manny … Joel … and you,” as home movie footage shows Paps removing Manny’s shirt in silhouette, Joel as a toddler clapping in front of a birthday cake and Jonah popping up from the bottom of the last frame in the montage between his mother’s legs, footage that the director says captured the birth of his own child during the making of the film.
There’s a poetry to We the Animals that captures the same sensibility in the book on which it is based. It’s as much a breezy and epic a film as the book. The film always bounds along on the energy of the child actors, all of them appearing on film for the first time. Zagar keeps scenes fast and focused, feeding on transcendent moments of performance, grounded in the boys’ inexperience but never revealing of their acting. He gets to their truths that in turn inform the characters they depict. The edits are too quick to notice any sort of artificiality in the performances and Mulligan’s camera work never feels intrusive of the boys’ presence on camera, unlike, say The Florida Project, which indulged in child actors’ precociousness so much you couldn’t help but see the films’ seams. We the Animals indulges in a sort of intangible quality that speaks to something so raw, it is hard to see it as anything more than honest and real.
SCREENING UPDATE: Catch We the Animals at the Miami Beach Cinematheque for its Spirit of the Independents series now running through January 13, check their calendar for details.
We the Animals runs 94 minutes and is rated R. It opens in our Miami area exclusively at the MDC’s Tower Theater Miami Friday, Sept. 14. For screenings in other parts of the U.S., visit this link. The Orchard sent us a DVD screener for the purpose of this review.