'We wanted more' Jonah (Evan Rosado) tells us, the youngest of three brothers whose Italian-Irish mother (Sheila Vand, "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night") was thrown out of NYC home as a young teen for having become pregnant by their Puerto Rican Paps (Raúl Castillo). Ma and Paps are clearly crazy about each other, but economic hardship and isolation in upstate New York takes its toll and their three sons are imprinted with both violence and neglect in "We the Animals."
Cowriter (with Daniel Kitrosser)/director Jeremiah Zagar chronicled his own unsettled family life in his documentary "In a Dream," which revolved around the breakup of his artist father's marriage to his mother. Now, adapting Justin Torres' semi-autobiographical novel for his first feature film, we can see his earlier style reflected here in a movie that features the wonder of childhood pierced by parental problems of Sean Baker's "The Florida Project," some of the magical realism of Benh Zeitlin's "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and the fragmentary impressionism of Terrence Malick's "Tree of Life." Young Rosado, who looks like a pre-teen Terrence Howard, has a mesmerizing presence, ably shouldering the film's point of view.
Initially, this family seems idyllic, despite Jonah's dismay at the dueling conundrums of too much and not enough work. As their mom sleeps exhausted from a shift at a local brewery, dad dances about the kitchen preparing a meal, his spatula transformed into musical instrument. Mom wonders out bleery from sleep and the three boys hold back rapt silence as their parents embrace, mom gifting them with a conspiratorial look of utter happiness over their father's shoulder.
The first big crack appears at a local swimming hole, Paps taking his wife and the ever-more-nervous looking Jonah farther out into the water on his back (cinematographer Zak Mulligan keeps his camera's POV slightly at the water line, increasing anxiety). He suddenly lets Jonah loose and as we hear him responding to Ma with questions as to how the boy will ever learn to swim, we experience the panic of plunging under water, the film's symbolic theme for Jonah's state of being (underwater imagery will reappear during times of stress). Ma is furious on the return trip and Papi's guilt and frustration finds an outlet in violence. Paps leaves and Ma slips into a deep, bedridden depression, leaving her three sons to fend for themselves.
Zagar's narrative is composed of memory-like snippets, short scenes punctuated with fragments from others and disembodied dialogue. He uses Jonah's journal, lined paper covered with words over which the young boy draws seminal moments of his childhood, throughout, animations taking us into Jonah's innermost thoughts. We see how his older brothers, Joel (Josiah Gabriel) and Manny (Isaiah Kristian), follow after their dad, earning their mother's fury when they dare to laugh at her bust lip after Papi leaves, her attachment to her youngest a form of nesting denial with which Jonah must contend.
Faced with literal hunger, the boys venture out to forage, first at a convenience story, then at a neighboring farm, whose owner first smacks one of them, then stands back, asking if they're hungry. The old man's grandson welcomes the boys into his basement lair, introducing them to pornography that further accentuates lines drawn, the eldest two reacting to heterosexual sex while Jonah is fascinated by two men, his sidelong glances assessing the blond teenager. We're reminded of Paps's earlier comment about Jonah being the 'pretty one.'
Ma does eventually come out of her funk and Paps returns, clearly not for the first time, but it is Jonah's future that "We the Animals" is concerned with and when his journal is found, its pages are spread across the living room floor, his entire family sitting silently like some kind of tribunal. Zagar's film finds both the magic and terror of childhood and his cast, especially the three principals, find deep wells of human experience. but his handling of Jonah's sexual awakening circles controversial cliches. Zagar's suffers somewhat following better films that it resembles, but he has a knack for imparting experiences through an impressionistic lens.
Robin also gives "We the Animals" a B.
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