SIFF 2018 REVIEW – We the Animals: Jeremiah Zagar’s rural American indie is a quiet yet powerful examination of family, masculinity, and isolation

 

“Us three. Us brothers. Us kings.”

Hailed as “This year’s Moonlight,” on IndieWire, Jeremiah Zagar’s narrative feature debut We the Animals is a stirring character study of a young boy struggling to comprehend the world around and within him. Adapting Justin Torres’ novel of the same name, Zagar’s film imaginatively balances light and dark, hope and fear, joy and pain, experienced by one family through the eyes of ten-year-old Jonah (Evan Rosado).

Jonah’s parents met in Brooklyn, and eloped to the sun-dappled outback of rural upstate New York to start their family. Ma (Sheila Vand) and Pops (Raúl Castillo) have an increasingly volatile relationship, not helped by their grim financial situation and the pressure of raising their three young sons. The boys run free, yelling battle-cries and chasing each other across the woodland expanse that is their kingdom. Jonah struggles to keep up with his older brothers Joel (Josiah Gabriel) and Manny (Isaiah Kristian) both physically and emotionally, aggravated by his own babyish tendencies –  which his brothers are all too keen to pick on. Whilst his brothers sleep heavily, entangled on their shared bed, Jonah lies awake and restless. His escape, hidden among broken mattress springs, is his secret sketchbook, into which he pours his scribbled frustrations and anxieties. His brothers are already young men in the eyes of their hyper-masculine father, but Jonah shyly clings to his overprotective mother, uncertain of his place in the family.

A neat 90 minutes long, We the Animals still manages to take its time in developing Jonah’s voice as he narrates his family’s increasing struggles through job losses, fights, and empty kitchen cupboards. After Pops’ sudden disappearance, Ma retreats into depression, and the boys turn to shoplifting and scavenging to keep themselves alive. The three brothers move like shadows of each other; often bickering, but rarely seen apart. After befriending the teenage son of one of their neighbours, Jonah becomes fascinated by the VHS porn Dustin hides in his basement hangout, a fixation that causes an unexpected shift in his understanding of his own feelings. The film’s treatment of Jonah’s masculinity and sexuality is honest without feeling exploitative, exploring an emotional domain not often approached by filmmakers.

Though the story is grounded in realism, visually reminiscent of warm, grainy 90s home video, Jonah’s troubled perceptions often oscillate into fantasy. His whimsical, often dark illustrations explode into abstract animation that spills out across the frame, a visual guide that reminds us of the youth of our protagonist in moments where he seems almost too wise for his age. Jonah draws what he can perhaps never truly understand, a futile effort to make tangible what troubles his naïve mind. The stylised elements of the narrative interweave with reality without feeling too on-the-nose in their symbolic presence, instead becoming a guide for the audience that doesn’t overstep its use.

A huge part of the film’s power resides within its young actors; the three boys playing Jonah, Joel, and Manny were plucked from schools to make their professional film debuts. With very little formal acting training, preparation for shooting involved a lot of running around and screaming, according to writer Daniel Kitrosser in his post-screening Q&A. Carrying the story upon small shoulders, Evan Rosado shines as our wide-eyed window into the world; his solemn quietness has a screen presence as commanding as his moments of unrestrained expression. The three boys are entirely convincing as brothers; their trust and care for one another is evident even despite their competitive behaviour. Castillo and Vand’s turns as Pops and Ma present a complicated, often violent portrayal of a couple in love but incapable of dealing with their failings and insecurities as parents.

Though associations to Moonlight are indeed valid and certainly well-intentioned, We the Animals stands up on its own two feet with a unique sense of style and confidence that negates comparison. Jonah’s coming-of-age is treated with a deep affection and understanding, the narrative following his tentative steps towards self-discovery.

 

by Megan Wilson

Megan is a northerner currently studying film in London. She likes cats, old musicals, and films about lesbians who don’t die. Her favourite films include Carol, Moonlight, Singin’ in the Rain, and Matilda. Twitter: @bertmacklln

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