‘We the Animals’ recreates the tender world of childhood

(Paul Davidson/The Orchard)

One of this year’s most tender films, “We the Animals,” is a sentimental portrait of the queer youth experience. Like similar recent films focused on children, “The Florida Project,” “Moonlight” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” it has the power to do more than just entertain. It can transport us to a world we do not know. Perhaps, a place where we can learn, grow and, most important, listen to an experience different from our own.  

Adapted from Justin Torres’s autobiographical novel of the same name, the film moves with poetic rhythm. Drums thump. Fingers tap. Fists bang. Hearts beat. A living pulse serves as an undercurrent for this bildungsroman.

“We the Animals” opens with three Puerto Rican boys moving in raucous, tyrannical tandem. Screaming, shouting and running around their house in the upstate New York countryside, they have a camaraderie that transcends brotherhood. “Body heat. Body heat. Body heat,” they chant with faces lit up by flashlights under a blanket. Yet Jonah (Evan Rosada) our protagonist, stands out among the trio. As his older brothers sleep sprawled out on their shared bed, Jonah hides underneath, coloring in his notebooks. In his mind exists another world, all his own. A world he escapes to.

Although Jonah moves in sync with his brothers, he is at the same time different. Younger. Quieter. More sensitive and observant—gay. His otherness pronounces itself as we watch him observe the world around him, especially his parents’ marriage. Jonah’s growing isolation is the crux of the film.

In his mind exists another world, all his own. A world he escapes to.

Ma and Paps (Sheila Van and Raul Castillo) present a complicated, messy relationship, marked by passion. At a moment’s notice we can see it shift from affectionate to angry and abusive.

Paps, in a bathrobe holding a beer, bangs his spatula on the stove along to Latin music playing over the radio. The boys with morning eyes look on curiously. He encourages them to dance with him. “Dance like you’re rich!” The boys stick out their pinky fingers and turn up their noses while continuing their merengue steps. “Now like you’re white!” Their loose movement becomes rigid. “Shake it like you’re Puerto Rican!” The boys exude their father’s confidence, returning to their rhythmic steps. Paps dances sensually with their mother who emerges from the bedroom. Jonah looks on, and we watch him process masculinity. He doesn’t relate to his father’s machismo in the same way as his brothers.

Many scenes are not as sweet. Jonah is increasingly an outsider within the family. Anger builds as he watches his parents’ volatile relationship grow more and more physically aggressive. He tentatively discovers his attraction towards an older neighbor boy. His isolation is deafening, with drawing being his only outlet.

On screen, Jonah’s drawings become animations that bring us into his isolated world. Visually, they serve as full-screen transitions bridging one scene to the next. Coupled with Jonah’s narration, they let us watch him process his surroundings and come of age. The animations, although unique and generally well executed, can at times feel like an abrupt departure from the otherwise aesthetically cohesive film.

Jeremiah Zagar’s new film does more than just entertain. It transports us to a world we do not know.

The director Jeremiah Zagar—who has a background in documentary filmmaking—gives the movie a warm naturalism. The cinematographer’s handheld, shaky-camera approach brings with it the intimacy of a home movie. The late-summer color palette accentuates this feeling. Zagar was responsible for bringing the cast together in one small house to live on location in Utica, N.Y. to prepare for filming. Working with three first-time child actors, he emphasized play in order to build chemistry. The relationships on screen hold the film together.

The movie is at its best when it lets these relationships sing within its non-linear storyline. The vignettes, loosely woven together, function like memories. And with memory, the good, the bad and the ugly come together to form Jonah’s evolving identity.

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