I was grumpy while watching We The Animals, an adaptation of Justin Torres’ cathartic coming of age novel. Adapting the material is writer Dan Kitrosser and writer-director Jeremiah Zagar. The latter is a documentary filmmaker who makes this his first fictional feature. There’s a refined look here but there are a lot of handheld shots. It follows the protagonist, ten year old Jonah (Evan Rosado). There are also his two slightly older brothers Joel (Josiah Gabriel) and Manny (Isaiah Christian).
There’s also drone shots of rural upstate New York, which is real but the camera shapes it within Jonah’s imagination. There are a lot of dream and fantasy sequences here. As if Jonah’s flying above the trees, rising from underneath the dirty ground. This is one of the few ways that Jonah deals with his Pops’ (Raul Castillo) increasingly erratic behavior. Just like his father, nature is a leviathan. One that he either explores and controls as it’s trying to swallow him whole.
The restless camera isn’t also following Jonah and his brothers explore New York State’s seemingly wild and vast forest areas. It show’s Jonah’s Basquiat-y art. Visually it shows too much of the hallmarks of the last decade of independent cinema. Something like Beasts of the Southern Wild comes to mind. It then shows his parents as archetypes, the way children see people. While his Pops’ flaw is taking things too far, his Ma’s (Sheila Vand) is her overprotective nature.
Vand and Castillo are one of my favorite actors working today. They’re doing their best, if not their most acting here. But these characters without names have less nuance than what I’d prefer them to have. There’s also something unsettling about watching a person of color playing an abusive role, despite the authenticity of its origins. But its familiarity is also its asset. This film tells the story of every child surviving a tumultuous home and is questioning their sexuality.
Children are loving, growing, learning beings. There’s a certain myopia here that comes with specificity, of a time before the internet. And the only way to learn things is through parents and through television. This film then shows the ways in which that education can go wrong. Sometimes the film shows how dark, empty, and quiet Jonah’s house can be when one of the parents leave it. These children waiting for a phone call and breaking our hearts in the process.
Conveying a child’s understanding of what love is requires a collaboration between Zagar, Rosado, and Castillo. This collaboration is the film’s best elements. Showing the different ways that abuse manifests has a lot to do with depicting toxic masculinity and the masculine ideal. And we’re seeing that through Jonah’s eyes, an ambivalent perspective that finds it both desirable and repelling. This is all Freudian. But Torres and Zagar take that theme as far as it can go and making audiences understand that complexity.
The film’s main trajectory is Jonah emotionally separating himself from his family. As the film progresses, Zagar and Rosado work to express the intensity of that divide. This is especially true when he enters the room that he and his brothers share. And it’s more empty than how he remembers it. Both handle the explosiveness of the emotions here so well. And the consequences of everyone’s actions provide a reckoning.
And fine, Ma and Pops get nuance, like when Jonah runs to Pops. Pops comes in to the driveway with a truck. A scene that goes from right to wrong then back to right again within the span of minutes. It’s one of the scenes when an abuser negotiates but only in a way that an abuser does. Castillo does great work especially in scenes where he has to argue with Vand. These scenes show insight to how other tolerate such behavior, and how to wake up after seeing it.