Director: Jeremiah Zagar
Screenplay: Daniel Kitrosser, Jeremiah Zagar
Based on a Novel by: Justin Torres
Starring: Evan Rosado, Raúl Castillo, Sheila Vand, Isaiah Kristian, Josiah Gabriel
Running Time: 94 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
We The Animals is an adaptation of the award-winning debut novel of the same name, written by Justin Torres. Winning the ‘Next Innovator’ prize at Sundance, the film tells Torres’ semi-autobiographical story in an inventive and beautifully realised fashion.
We The Animals is told from the perspective of 10-year-old Jonah (Evan Rosado), who lives with his two brothers (Isaiah Kristian and Josiah Gabriel) and parents, Puerto Rican ‘Paps’ (Raúl Castillo) and Italian-American ‘Ma’ (Sheila Vand). Both working low-paid, dead-end jobs, Paps and Ma struggle to make ends meet and the former’s violent temper and abuse causes rifts in the otherwise seemingly loving relationship between the family members. After one particularly vicious fight however, Paps walks out on the family for a while, leaving Ma depressed and bed-bound whilst the boys are forced to fend for themselves for a few days.
As the film goes on we see Jonah drift apart from his older siblings, Manny and Joel, who are growing ever more like their dad with their macho posturing and violent tendencies. Jonah, meanwhile, is struggling to find himself. With the boys being inappropriately exposed to their parents’ sexualised behaviour as well as pornography shared by a neighbour, we see the brothers develop their own sexualities. Manny and Joel predictably become full of swagger, mimicking that of his father, whereas Jonah is more curious and a little frightened (partly because the boys equate sex with violence due to their father’s behaviour). It gradually becomes apparent to the audience that Jonah is gay but struggling to understand these burgeoning feelings.
I’m not a huge fan of what some might call ‘poverty porn’ (in extreme circumstances). By that, I mean films that wallow in the suffering of their poverty-stricken characters in order to make their middle-class audiences either feel sorry for them or secretly feel better about their comfortable lives. Socially conscious films are important and I’ve seen many that I think are fantastic, but there are also a lot that push things too far, laying the tragedy on too thick, bypassing any nuance or depth for what are often complicated issues. I’ve not been a fan of what I’ve seen of Ken Loach’s more recent output for instance. The artistry seems to have been lost in favour of laboured, one-sided political diatribe.
These types of film seem part of a tired ‘genre’ too, with little new to add to the conversations they’re addressing. However, now and again something will come along that will strike a chord or try something different. Last year I was particularly impressed by The Florida Project for instance, which injected the social drama with life and energy, putting its focus on the viewpoint of a very young protagonist who gleefully makes the most of her circumstances, unaware of any neglect put upon her. We the Animals is quite reminiscent of this, though has enough of its own character to not feel like more of the same.
The homosexuality aspect of the story helps set it apart from other social dramas for instance, though it brings to mind Moonlight, which explored the sexuality of a young boy in a tough social situation. Where We the Animals truly shines though is in its fantasy sequences. Jonah spends his late nights and early mornings sketching and writing in a notebook he hides under his bed and the film brings these alive in beautifully realised animated sequences that retain a childlike style. There are also other flights of fancy as we enter Jonah’s daydreams. These metaphorically express his situation in ways that aren’t particularly subtle (he’s often trapped underwater, drowning or flying, trying to escape) but are beautifully realised and highly effective.
The film has a wonderfully poetic aesthetic to it in general. The (largely 16mm) cinematography is stunning, making great use of light, shadow, silhouette and colour. The editing is fantastic too, moving gracefully between reality and dreams with a great sense of rhythm and fluidity. It knows when to fire up and slow down.
What I really liked about the film though was how it didn’t paint its characters in black and white. Yes, the dad is unforgivably abusive, but we see that he does genuinely love his family. It’s suggested that the fact he’s tired and frustrated by his situation might be one cause for his aggression. The mother doesn’t come off scott-free either. She loves her boys, particularly Jonah (she’s given up a little on the other two), but badly neglects them when Pops leaves.
Perhaps the clearest message the film is trying to make here though is the cyclical and suffocating nature of abuse and poverty. The family don’t seem able to get out of the chain of hardship and abuse they’re subjected to. Manny and Joel are shown to clearly be following in their father’s footsteps, for instance, mimicking his language, verbally and physically attacking outsiders to their world. They even launch a violent attack on their father later on when he doesn’t play their game. This brings up another focus of the film – the way the boys aren’t treated like children or allowed to act as such. They’re given too much responsibility by their parents and exposed to things they shouldn’t be witnessing. This causes the boys to accept often troubling and problematic behaviour as the norm because they see it all the time but don’t fully understand it.
One last quality I must mention before I wrap up, is the strength of the performances. The boys, in particular, are great. They really feel like brothers, with notable chemistry between them. The director reportedly had them live together in the actual house location to establish that bond and help them feel at home there. It’s a technique that works as there’s a fully believable energy to the trio. The parents also effectively handle the layers of their characters.
Naturalistic yet poetic, raw yet tender, it’s a beautiful film that delicately balances these seemingly contradictory qualities. It adds its own spin and depth to the ‘poverty porn’ formula by offering an artful, well-rounded view of a damaged but often loving family unit through the eyes of a child struggling to find his own identity beyond the trap he’s caught in. It’s director Jeremiah Zagar’s fiction feature debut, so he’s certainly one to watch.
We the Animals is out on 16th September on dual-format Blu-Ray & DVD in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Montage Pictures offshoot. The film looks and sounds fantastic on Blu-Ray. Dark scenes have a thick digital grain, but it appears to be a stylistic choice.
There’s a small handful of features included too:
– 1080p presentation on Blu-ray (with a progressive encode on DVD)
– Optional English subtitles
– Animationism: a short film by Jason Banville and starring Mark Samsonovich, the artist behind We The Animals powerful animated sequences
– We The Animals: Meet Evan, Isaiah and Josiah Introductions to the trio of young cast members
– Making of We The Animals: A short behind the scenes look at the making of the film
– We The Animals, from book to film Justin Torres talks about the process of his book become a film
– How To Make We The Animals in 60 Seconds
– VFX breakdown
– Theatrical Trailer
– PLUS: A booklet featuring new writing on the film by film critic Wendy Ide
All the featurettes are only between 2 and 4 minutes long so there’s nothing substantial here, unfortunately, but there are some nice behind the scenes moments captured. The Torres interview sounds very genuine too and the VFX featurette is a surprising addition, showing how many hidden FX go into a film like this – not just in the fantasy sequences. Some of it is crazy. In one snowy scene, there was no snow at all!
The booklet makes up for the slight set of video features, with some information about the film’s production as well as a thoughtful essay by Wendy Ide about socially conscious films made in the US.