We the Animals (Review)

Based on Justin Torre’s acclaimed novel ‘We the Animals’. Jeremiah Zager’s debut feature based not only creates a visually stunning, powerful and poetic film. But also encapsulates the haunting effects of childhood poverty, family breakdown and emerging sexuality.

From the very start We the Animals pulls no punches in its child centred view of family life, confusion and brotherly love. While weaving a careful path through the realities of families poverty, isolation and breakdown. Creating a film that not only gives voice to childhood imagination, belonging and self-expression, but also matches this with the barriers of limited opportunity and insecure parenthood.

Zagar shoots the film from the perspective of 10 year old Jonah (Evan Rosado), the youngest of three half Puerto Rican children. All three living within a volatile and fluctuating family in 1980s upstate New York. In a life that veers from childhood laughter and fun to sudden emotional detachment and pain. In effect creating constant change and instability. While his parents (Raul Castillo) and (Shelia Vand) struggle with their own turbulent marriage and emotional and physical conflict.

A dynamic that leads Jonah into a world of artistic expression through his drawing. While equally seeking emotional support and stability from his older brothers. Who have all developed their own unique support structure in a volatile world of family conflict. In turn bringing us a vision of boys on the verge of becoming feral. While they fight for their own survival, in an energetic world of secret rules, rambunctious behaviour and tenderness. 

While a part of his brothers world, Jonah never truly fits in. His sensitive nature and desire for exploration and artistic freedom carving him out from his brothers. His only role models coming from a dysfunctional family and close knit siblings. Alongside a teenage neighbour who harbours his own hidden desires within the social isolation of poverty. Jonah’s security held meshed together by a mother who struggles to care for herself, and a father whose creativity is threaded with volatility. Favouring the masculinity of Jonah’s brothers over his creative impulses and desires. 

We the Animals explores its central themes of emerging sexuality and coming of age with a delicate yet utterly mesmerising beauty. Dovetailing the emerging artistic ability of Jonah with his inner most thoughts in an environment of limited opportunity. Where family life lacks the security and positive love needed to truly develop.

While Zagar’s background in documentary filmmaking brings an intimacy and artistry that mirrors reality. His camera highly focussed on the boys as they echo the joy and pain of their environment. And when you add to this Zak Mulligan’s stunning 16mm cinematography. The resulting picture creates an almost dream like landscape that sears into your memory. One that not only reflects the power of childhood memory, but also the bewildering and opaque themes attached to the coming of age process.

With exceptionally strong performances throughout, We the Animals is a remarkably solid debut feature. However, despite its beauty, it can feel slightly lost in its own narrative. A inherent risk associated with condensing a far more sprawling novel into film.

However, despite these minor weaknesses in the translation from novel to film. We the Animals is a visceral and emotional journey into childhood. And one that stays with you long after the credits have rolled.

Director:  Jeremiah Zagar

Cast: Evan RosadoRaúl CastilloSheila Vand 


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