Jeremiah Zager’s debut feature film takes Justin Torre’s acclaimed novel and creates a visually stunning, powerful and poetic film of childhood poverty, family breakdown and emerging sexuality. We the animals pulls no punches in its child centred view of family life, confusion and brotherly love. Weaving a path through the realities of 80’s America for families on the verge of poverty, isolation and breakdown. While also exploring the interface between childhood imagination, belonging and need for self-expression and experimentation in a world of limited opportunity and emotional security.
Zagar shoots the film from the perspective of 10 year old Jonah (Evan Rosado), the youngest of three half Puerto Rican children living within a volatile and fluctuating family in upstate New York. We the Animals combines the intensity of Jonah’s artistic expression through his drawing with the insular world of a family on the brink. His parents (Raul Castillo) and (Shelia Vand) struggling with their own turbulent marriage and emotional and physical conflict. While Jonah and his brothers develop their own brotherly support structure, a tight and segregated world of rules, care and support. These are boys on the verge of being feral, fighting for their own survival, in an energetic childhood world of secret rules, rambunctious behaviour and occasional tenderness.
While a part of his brothers world, Jonah never truly fits in, his sensitive nature, exploration of emotions and artistic ability, slowly creating dividing lines as he begins his own journey into teenage life. His only role models coming from a dysfunctional family, close knit siblings and teenage neighbours who harbour their own hidden desires and social isolation. Jonahs security held meshed together by a mother who struggles to care for herself, and a father whose creativity is threaded with volatility, favouring a masculinity that Jonah simply cannot meet.
Themes of sexuality and coming of age are beautifully explored alongside family, opportunity and insular protective brotherly connections. Bonding the emerging art of Jonah and his inner most thoughts with the spiralling family conflict, gaps in support and need of escape and exploration inherent in childhood.
Zagar’s background in documentary filmmaking brings an intimacy and artistry that mirrors the work of Barry Jenkins (Moonlight), while Zak Mulligans stunning 16mm cinematography brings an almost dream like landscape that sears into the viewers memory. Reflecting the power of childhood memory and its ability to create images that can be one part beautiful and another part bewildering and opaque.
With exceptionally strong performances throughout, We the Animals is a solid debut feature. However, at times it can feel slightly lost in its own beauty and condensed timeline, compressing its narrative into a shorter period than the original book.
Despite these minor weaknesses in novel to film translation, We the Animals sears into your consciousness, challenging your feelings and emotions, while providing a beautifully performed and delivered film that is heartfelt and sincere.