Film Review: We the Animals

This boyhood drama is exceptionally beautiful…and poky.
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Any given image of writer-director Jeremiah Zagar’s debut narrative feature We the Animals might be worthy of framing. Set among the lakes and leafy, winding lanes of a blue-collar Adirondack town, the story of a sensitive boy’s coming-of-age is cast by cinematographer Zak Mulligan in the golden light of youth. Even the tormented inner life of the youngster, Jonah (Evan Rosado), takes striking visual form onscreen via illustrations and animation by Mark Samsonovich that represent the rough but revealing sketches filling Jonah’s notebooks.

The film’s palette of deep blues and greens is underscored by sound design that’s equally lovely, led by composer Nick Zammuto’s atmospheric synth score. Throughout, the score and background noise often give way to Jonah’s plaintive voiceover, reciting in clipped, artful phrases the thoughts he’s scrawled in his journals next to his drawings.

So, at any moment, We the Animals might look and sound gorgeous—yet the film unfolds with a naturalistic pace that plods like a too-lazy summer day. This gorgeous view demands ample, ample patience.

The languorous pace echoes the rhythm of Jonah’s summer spent at play with his older brothers, Manny (Isaiah Kristian) and Joel (Josiah Gabriel), racing through the forest and getting into mischief like shoplifting at the corner store. Boys will be boys, and these brothers, Puerto Rican kids in a mostly white upstate burg, are as tight-knit as they come. Manny, Joel and Jonah run, laugh and make trouble together, but Jonah is noticeably different, his brothers might say weird. He secrets himself underneath the beds in their shared room, where he writes and draws. He goes somewhere in his head, imagining a world far away from Manny and Joel.

A lot of the time Jonah’s prose and art recreate scenes from the turbulent, shouty rollercoaster relationship of the boys’ Ma (Sheila Vand) and Paps (Raúl Castillo), two overworked, sometimes overwhelmed twenty-somethings who show the strain of maintaining their family, marriage and home. Ma and Paps fight and make up, argue, kiss and cuddle, all with a restless passion that Jonah observes intently.

Employing nimble, handheld camerawork and editing that pounce on every fight and keep up with Jonah and his rambunctious siblings, Zagar adheres closely to the kid’s-eye point-of-view. Occasionally the movement jostles more than it flows, but the cumulative effect conveys Jonah’s way of seeing things, or not seeing things, as the case may be. After all, some decisions are made when kids aren’t in the room. The boys wake up and Paps has left. One night, Ma wakes them, ready to take off herself, if only the boys could help her figure out where to go or what to do.

The instability, and the abruptness of change, juxtaposed with the day-in, day-out sameness of a boy’s life, feel authentic, especially in the performances. The script, adapted by Zagar and Daniel Kitrosser from the novel by Justin Torres, sounds like real life, down to the awkward conversations between Jonah and the loner teen neighbor,

Dustin (Giovanni Pacciarelli), who helps usher in Jonah’s adolescent sexuality as they hang out in a basement drinking soda and watching X-rated ads for phone-chat lines.

Rosado offers an expressive lead performance that helps focus the loose slice-of-life storytelling. Jonah’s journey of emotions plays out vividly across Rosado’s always alert eyes: the longing Jonah feels in the presence of the laissez-faire Dustin; the fear and anger provoked by his brothers’ teasing; the calm that overtakes him being held in his father’s arms.

As the confused and oft-confusing Paps, Castillo (HBO’s “Looking”) conveys the paradox of a sensitive macho man. He and Vand bicker and coo convincingly, but Ma and Paps’ shouting matches are too vague and repetitive in the long run, generating conflict for the sake of conflict. Symbols of working-class angst, they don’t appear to be on any particular trajectory of their own. Likewise, Manny and Joel, though well-acted, don’t take on the dimension of characters living their own stories beyond their function within Jonah’s tale.

Zagar manages to relay the evolution of the boys’ brotherhood as they grow up over a season or two, with summer passing into fall and winter. Manny and Joel start to noticeably take after their volatile parents, but Jonah stands alone in the quiet. Occasionally, he dances in moonlight, as does the film, but stillness is more his, and the movie’s, speed.