We The Animals Review
Three boys, skinny and brown-limbed, beat their bare chests and howl into the canopy of a sun-dappled forest. A mother and son press their foreheads together, her gaze imploring him, don’t leave me. A boy sinks into the glinting water of a lake, his breath bubbling out around him until he discovers the instinct to kick.
These are the images that We The Animals leaves with the viewer, the primal, urgent and beautiful moments of childhood captured by director Jeremiah Zagar in his lovely adaptation of the novel by Justin Torres. They are punctuated by frenetic animated sequences, the boy’s scribbled drawings brought to life on screen.
Zagar makes every effort to let these evocative moments tell the story with limited interference from the protagonist and narrator, 10-year-old Jonah (the captivating Evan Rosado). His voice overs give the briefest context and serve more to showcase the lyrical prose of the novel than they do to advance the plot. And of a plot, there isn’t much, but this is one of those films where that doesn’t really matter.
Jonah is the youngest of three boys and spends much of the film tailing after his brothers, Joel (Josiah Gabriel) and Manny (Isaiah Kristian) - three newcomers to the screen who bring an earnest energy and vulnerability to their performances. They live in upstate New York in a house surrounded by forest with their mother, Ma (Sheila Vand, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night), and sometimes their Puerto Rican father, Paps (Raul Castillo, HBO’s Looking). The tumultuous, passionate and often abusive relationship of their parents forms the foundation for the boys' lives, which rise and fall with the state of the marriage. When their parents fight, Ma retreats to bed, Paps leaves, and the boys are left to forage for food in the empty kitchen. Eventually, Ma gets out of bed, Paps reappears and everything returns to normal - for a while.
It’s a dysfunctional home life, but Jonah is young enough not to know better. Instead, life is an adventure, his brothers are his partners-in-crime, and his parents’ absences serve to make their presences all the more meaningful. But Jonah is on the verge of growing up, and the film sits in the moments when he begins to see his parents for who they are, and his brothers for what they are becoming. It is childhood at its most beautiful and most fleeting, on the verge of disappearing.
By the film’s end, there is a sense of innocence lost. For Jonah, the “we” becomes “I” as he takes his first steps away from his family and into manhood.
We The Animals is a powerful meditation on boyhood that dances around bigger issues of income, race, abuse and sexuality. There is the sense that Zagar is pushing against the narrative need for answers, and although the film’s occasional fantasy sequences feel a bit heavy-handed, they also reveal a drive towards self-discovery and freedom that is the film’s raison d’être. In the end, growing up is the film’s great joy, and its great tragedy.
We The Animals opens in UK cinemas nationwide on June 14.