The fluid, poetic film adaptation of Justin Torres' autobiographical novel captures a unique blend of the cycles of abuse and coming-of-age sexuality. We The Animals excels at feeling both like a fly-on-the-wall documentary and an impressionistic take on childhood that brings to mind Beasts of the Southern Wild. Director Jeremiah Zagar confidently directs the film and achieves uniformly strong performances from a mostly unknown cast.
Early on we meet three brothers, Manny (Isaiah Kristian), Jonah (Evan Rosado) and Joel (Josiah Gabriel) as they run amok, stealing food and throwing rocks at cars. We soon learn that their parents are absent in different ways. After Paps (Raúl Castillo) beats up Ma (Sheila Vand), he disappears for a while sending Ma into a bed-ridden depression. When he returns, the cycle of abuse is exposed and the young boys are left to react. The ways in which they react exposes various forms of masculinity that form from such abuse.
We The Animals mostly focuses on the dynamics of this multicultural family, Pa is Puerto Rican and Ma is Italian. The one outside character is Jonah's teenage crush, a boy who spends most of his time watching porn on old VHS tapes. Jonah's homosexuality is explored some but the focus is more on how these young boys survive the abusive relationship their parents have. His point of view is the film's focus but his sexuality stays hidden, mostly because his brothers and father won't react well to it. Jonah illustrates his desires with colored pencil and paper and director Zagar transforms this into animated fantasies, suggesting that Jonah often blends reality with these visions.
The film's cinematography by Zak Mulligan captures the details of Jonah's worlds. The lighting has immense texture to it, often transforming dingy settings into something full of immediate wonder. The choice to shoot on film gives the images a thick grain that evokes the nostalgia around childhood. The score by Nick Zammuto compliments these images. The two together create some powerful moments even when the fragmented story fails to build to anything. By keeping the plot structure so loose, Zagar is able to capture the chaotic nature of this time in Jonah's life but also undoes any building momentum.
Across the board, the acting is very natural and effective. The three actors playing the brothers have a real bond that feels deep and spontaneous. Each boy represents a different form of masculinity and it is remarkable how nuanced this is in the performances. Zagar achieves something very special here. Sheila Vand, from A Girl Walks Home Along at Night, does a great job here internalizing the years of abuse she has gone through and the protective nature she has over her children.
Vagar may wear a few influences on his sleeve here, Terrence Malick comes to mind several time while watching the film, but he clearly has a knack for crafting and capturing naturalistic performances. While I may have wished for a bit more from the film's plot trajectory, We The Animals is filled with memorable moments that stayed with me long after the film ended.