Our first glimpses of the three children — Jonah (Evan Rosado), Manny (Isiah Kristian), and Joel (Josiah Gabriel) — at the heart of Jeremiah Zager’s We the Animals, an adaptation of Justin Torres’ semi-autobiographical 2011 novel of the same name, alternate between hell-raising fervor and quiet comfort. They scream across lawns and neighborhoods during the day on what seem to be perpetual adventures, and huddle together in cold moments chanting “body heat” in order to stay warm at night. It’s the kind of closeness that only a pack of wild and rowdy siblings could share, and of course the film is about the eventual dissolution of that connection as they begin to age.
But in those early, blissful moments, We the Animals recalls some of the best filmmaking about childhood, even if it never hits those highs quite in the same way that say Malick’s Tree of Life or Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight does, and its beauty and truth, performed by a capable stable of young actors, manages to stick with you despite many of the details fading away soon after viewing.
The brothers’ white mother (Sheila Vand) and Puerto Rican father (Raul Castillo) work quiet blue-collar jobs in Upstate New York, and the stresses of that particular life — coupled with raising three rowdy boys — heighten their mercurial impulses, whether it’s to violently fight or to dig a grave in the back yard after a particularly rough day at work. These passions never totally overwhelm their love for their children and each other, and Zager is able to craft a particularly deep perception of these characters without resorting to easy stereotyping and vilification. But the other brothers begin to grow like their parents, while young Jonah remains aloof and awkward, on the verge of realizing his essential facts about himself and his burgeoning queer identity.
It’s a film full of startling contrasts, where the main characters are forced to confront the facts that their loving father, who tenderly cuts their hair and tells them that he loves them, is also the same person who beats their mother, and those facts only serve to complicate the whole experience. Each and every member of this cast is fantastic, with Rosado giving a performance well in line with ones oft raved about like Brooklynn Prince’s in Sean Baker’s The Florida Project last year.
Zager, a documentary filmmaker, brings a hyper-verite lens to the proceedings — suburban grime melded with the beauty of the earthy landscape in which the film is set, beautifully photographed by cinematographer Zak Mulligan — which he often contrasts with the notepad animation of Jonah’s nighttime imagination (sweetly animated by Mark Samsonovich). That animation, while well-crafted, feels plucked from another film, and from a different character’s imagination, mainly because it’s revealed near the end of this story that it’s actual content is completely different than what we’ve seen depicted, making it feel like Zager’s censored this part of his development from us. I’m not arguing for that explicitness to be foregrounded in the film’s animation, mainly I just wish the actual content of his drawings had been telegraphed to us earlier — it’s a big ol’ surprise at the ending, and it feels somewhat unexpected. In contrast, the relationship that Jonah forms with a metal-obsessed farmer’s son — based around a quiet attraction and the comfort of a foreign basement — feels organic and interesting, even if it manages to stay just ahead of being slightly uncomfortable, given the slight age difference between the two. It’s a sweet look at the ways that romance blossoms in unexpected places, especially before the prejudice that sometimes come with aging has set in.
The main issue I have with We the Animals is the ending, which is the kind of maddeningly incomplete-feeling finale to a story like this, that chooses magical realism over any sort of resolution. This isn’t a plea to Zager to add an “it gets better” tag to the end of his film, because that would ring thematically untrue, but it’s a plea to filmmakers everywhere not to graph the ending of Radio Flyer on to their upsetting coming-of-age stories unless they’re doing so with thematic purpose (this excludes The Florida Project, for all those wondering).
This conclusion feels dramatically false in a way that the rest of the film isn’t, and it left a taste so bad in my mouth that it negatively colored my entire perception of this work until I had the chance to think about it from a distance. Happily, We the Animals is, for the most part, a beautiful and deeply felt film, which overcomes its narrative shortcomings handily and gorgeously.
We the Animals will enter limited release on August 10.