We the Animals, 2018.
Directed by Jeremiah Zagar.
Starring Raul Castillo, Sheila Vand, Evan Rosado, Josiah Gabriel, Isaiah Kristian, and Terry Holland.
Manny, Joel, and Jonah tear their way through childhood and push against the volatile love of their parents. As Manny and Joel grow into versions of their father and Ma dreams of escape, Jonah embraces an imagined world all on his own.
For a short while, things seem relatively normal within the interracial family at the center of documentary filmmaker Jeremiah Zagar’s (In a Dream) first narrative feature We the Animals. The children play (albeit very loudly and without much supervision), the parents work and come home exhausted, and even when Puerto Rican father known simply as Paps (Raul Castillo) is dancing in the kitchen with his Caucasian wife (also given no name distinction other than Ma, played by Sheila Vand) it appears that everyone is part of a loving unit. And then they go for a swimming trip where Paps brings youngest child Jonah (still reckless but easily the most mature of the pack, also facing the pressures of understanding and coming to terms with his own homosexuality, all poetically brought to the big screen with a remarkable newcomer performance from Evan Rosado) and his wife, both of whom can’t swim, fairly deep into the lake, only to let go and ditch them.
Paps is an old-school kind of guy; the type of person that we share things on Facebook about how “Back in my day we just beat our kids and made sure they learned to be a real man’s man at a young age”. Now, social media doesn’t exist here, as We the Animals is actually based on the autobiographical novel from Justin Torres (who oddly does not have a credit listed online but might have in the actual movie) and adapted by Daniel Kitrosser with Jeremiah Zagar himself pulling double duty as a co-writer, taking place during an unspecified time (although it seems to be the 70s or 80s) somewhere in a rural area of New York. The specifics don’t actually matter; the photography is always beautiful to look at, especially whenever the film is embracing its more art-house elements.
As such, We the Animals is presented exclusively from the perspective of Jonah; Paps is a terrible person that lashes out physically against his wife during heated arguments (heard but not seen as the film knows it should stay close to the novel and not shift away from the children), sickeningly telling the kids that his act of violence was a means to soften up mom’s teeth for the dentist. Not surprisingly, the impressionable children make light of the toxic relationship and conjoined upbringing, seeing fit to let their natural instincts take over and mold themselves into their father. They crack jokes about the abuse right to their mothers face. However, Jonah doesn’t; as mentioned he is unlike the rest and Ma wishes for him to stay 9 forever.
Ma does what most brave women would do in the situation; she tries to leave or get rid of Paps. And while she is unsuccessful, leaving audiences struggling to accept that she keeps letting this man back into the life of their family (going so far as continuing to engage in sexual intercourse with him), this is not a dysfunctional family film about their issues. We the Animals is about how all of these details shape the behavior of these kids, and it’s not good. They steal from stores, urinate on the outside walls of their home like animals, can be obnoxiously loud, rough, and rude, and in general come across like a pack of feral animals. It’s also rather depressing to watch them usually take the side of their father.
Meanwhile, some of the kids’ degeneracy leads to making a new friend, one that shows off a collection of porn infomercials recorded onto VHS tapes. It’s here where Jonah has an awakening that leads to a number of his artistic drawings (stylistically rendered in animation) inserting in his sexual orientation and the fears of coming out/rejection. This is also done with minimalism and is just another hardship Jonah must overcome amid his unhealthy upbringing. On another note, all of the drawings themselves add more layers of depth to Jonah rather than coming across as a forced independent filmmaking quirk; they allow us into his abused and thoughtful mind.
We the Animals doesn’t necessarily play down the uncomfortable complications between Paps and Ma, instead using the behavior to impact the characteristics of their children. It also does so with exceptional lighting, moody atmosphere, and the wise decision to never take perspective away from Jonah. This is both raw and lyrical filmmaking; for as frustrating as the children can be to watch their inseparable bond and traditions are endearing. Jonah and his Ma are at the center of this mess and every step of the way we hope they can escape the animalistic behavior on display.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com