“We the Animals” is something I cannot forget easily. As a haunting mixture of intimate family drama and sensitive coming-of-age drama, the movie has a number of lyrical and poetic moments to remember, and they are still lingering on my mind while generating more empathy toward its little young hero, who gradually becomes more aware of himself and the world surrounding him as he grows up day by day along with his brothers.
Set in around the 1980s, the story of the movie is mainly presented through the viewpoint of Jonah (Evan Rosado), a boy who has happily lived with his parents and his two older brothers. As both of his parents work in factories during daytime, Jonah and his two older brothers have plenty of free time to spend together, and the early part of the movie mostly shows us how they play together while their parents are not around them.
Their parents, Paps (Raúl Castillo) and Ma (Sheila Vand), are not so bad although they are sometimes too tired to pay attention to their boys. While Paps is always like a big brother to his boys, Ma is usually kind and generous to her children, and there is a lovely moment when they and their kids go together to a nearby river for having a little excursion for themselves. As his older brothers hang around with Paps in the river, Jonah has a small private time with Ma on the riverside, mainly because they do not know how to swim unlike other family members.
However, Paps tries to force Ma and Jonah to learn how to swim at one point, and that is when Jonah and his older brothers come to observe more of the growing strain in their parents’ relationship. Although Ma and Paps do love each other, Ma has felt frustrated with her husband’s irresponsible behaviors, and they come to argue with each other shortly after they return to their house along with their kids. Although the movie does not directly show us their argument, we can instead sense how much that affects their children as we watch Jonah and his older brothers silently listening to their parents from the distance.
In the end, Paps walks out of the house and does not return in the next morning. Ma, who is visibly injured on her face, is quite depressed about what happened at last night, so Jonah and his older brothers have to take care of themselves, and we accordingly get an amusing sequence where they try to find anything to eat in the kitchen.
Once they run out of food in their house, Jonah and his older brothers try shoplifting at a local store, and then they also try to steal vegetables at a garden which belongs to some old man. They get caught by that old man on the spot, but he shows them a little kindness, and they also come to befriend old man’s grandson living in the basement of the old man’s house. While spending some time along with Jonah and his older brothers at one point, old man’s grandson shows them several pornography movies, and that is when Jonah begins to open his eyes to his sexuality.
And we see more of Jonah’s burgeoning artistic sensibility. At night, he goes under his bed while his older brothers are trying to sleep, and he usually draws rudimentary but impressive pictures on papers, which are often vividly animated on the screen as if they were fueled further by his unadulterated imagination. The more he absorbs from his surrounding environment, the more he is aware of being different from others, and there is a mesmerizing scene later in the movie when he imagines himself being levitated above the ground and then flying in the sky.
When Paps returns, he and Ma become reconciled, but then they come to have another argument as she gets angry about what he thoughtlessly buys for replacing their broken vehicle. While their relationship seems to be restored later, Ma soon comes to feel frustrated again as trying to tolerate her husband, and there eventually comes a point where she considers leaving the house along with her children.
Leisurely and subtly moving from one episodic moment to another, the movie gives us a vivid, realistic portrayal of its young hero and his family. While the screenplay by director Jeremiah Zagar and his co-writer Dan Kitrosser, which is based on the novel of the same name by Justin Torres, succinctly establishes the relationships among its main characters, the main cast members are all convincing in their natural nuanced performance, and we become more immersed into the story as caring a lot about what is going on around our young hero. In addition, the movie is visually stunning at times while clearly reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s recent films such as “The Tree of Life” (2011), and cinematographer Zak Mulliagan’s camera frequently provides raw but sublime moments to engage and touch us a lot.
“We the Animals” is the first feature film by Zagar, who previously directed a number of short movies and documentary films. While it sometimes like a cross between “The Tree of Life” and “Moonlight” (2016), the movie still feels distinctive enough to leave its own impression on us, and I think it will be interesting to see what will come next from him. In conclusion, this is one of more interesting works of this year, and you should check it out if you are looking for something different.