J onah (Evan Rosado) is the youngest of three Hispanic brothers growing up in a small town in upstate New York. Love and abuse are both regular features of his life, as are the joys of a freedom born of the fact that his parents are too busy with their own troubles to pay much attention to what the kids are doing. We’ve seen several films based on a similar premise recently, including Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight and Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, but We the Animals is a distinctive film that offers not only a new spin on a familiar setup, but tells its story in a particularly appropriate style.
As directed by Jeremiah Zagar, We the Animalsis composed of many small moments, without much concern about delivering a traditional narrative. For that reason, people who attend movies only for the story will probably hate it, but for everyone else, it has a lot to offer. Zagar’s non-traditional approach to filmmaking is a strength for this story, because it allows the form of the film to mimic the way the world is experienced by children—one minute you’re laughing, the next you’re crying, and adults are mysterious beings whose behavior is often mysterious.
Jonah’s parents, referred to only as Ma (Sheila Vand) and Paps (Raul Castillo), are displaced city folk who moved to the country in the hopes of improving their lives. It hasn’t gone all that well for them—yes, the cost of living is lower than in the big city, but wages are less and employment can be harder to come by. Ma has a steady job in a brewery, but Paps is often out of work, a fact which makes him resent his wife because she’s the de facto head of the family. They also feel out of place in the countryside, particularly Paps, who is no doubt the only Puerto Rican for miles around.
Paps can be a loving father, but he has some strange ideas about child-rearing (he thinks it’s good parenting to dump a non-swimming child into deep water, for instance) and sometimes expresses his frustration in violence against his loved ones. Ma is the usual target of his anger, and he temporarily leaves the family after beating her so badly that she has to take to her bed to recover. Castillo gives a great performance, showing both the good and bad sides of his character, even though he’s really just a supporting character in the boys’ story.
When Jonah is heard in voiceover, he always speaks as “we.” In truth, at the start of the film he and his brothers (Josiah Gabriel and Isaiah Kristian) seem like one organism, so spontaneous are they at organizing themselves to get into minor sorts of trouble (mainly stealing food, a necessity since their parents haven’t bothered to provide for them) or in trying to figure out what’s going on with their parents. But over the course of the film it becomes increasingly clear that Jonah is different from his brothers, not only in his sexual preference, which he’s just starting to become aware of, (a neighbor’s porn stash plays a role in that discovery) but also in his ability and desire to reflect on his experiences. He’s often seen lying on the floor and drawing in a sketchbook, and We the Animals includes regular interludes in which these scrawly drawings become animated, offering a wordless interpretation of his understanding of the world, and suggesting the growing distance he feels from his family. | Sarah Boslaugh