Jeremiah Zagar’s lyric first narrative feature, We the Animals, unfolds in stunning, sometimes magic, sometimes dark and foreboding images replicating our memories of youth—intense and mysterious, full of power and still-uncertain meaning. Adapted from Justin Torres’s novel of the same name, the film focuses on three adolescent brothers, Manny, Joel, and Jonah, close in age and made closer by their shared struggle for survival in an unpredictable home. The three are often left alone because both their parents work menial jobs—their Anglo mother in a bottling plant, their Puerto Rican father watching a security monitor in another factory somewhere in the rural-industrial wilderness of upstate New York. But when the family does gather, just the slightest disturbance, refusal, or failure can lead to a cataclysm of emotional or physical violence.
That said, from the child’s perspective, there are also plenty of moments of quiet and pleasure, tenderness and love. It’s just that such things don’t come easily, or without a cost of blood or abandonment.
Zagar uses voiceover, close, sometimes unfocused camerawork, and a persistent low angle to keep us in the mind of Jonah, the youngest boy, and the film’s protagonist, recalling this past from an unknown future that’s been shaped by it. The lyricism of the visuals is Jonah’s own, a private mythology, the drifting, poeticizing vision of a kid learning his way, almost unguided, and already prone to see metaphor and allegory in what’s barely understood—the weight of metaphysical meaning, maybe even fate. Several sequences of distinctive animation, beginning in the interestingly informative opening credits, replicate Jonah’s secret nighttime writing and drawing sessions, and give further insight into his developing interpretations of himself and his family.
Whether through images of violence or sexuality, what seems to stick most with Jonah is the shape and vulnerability of the body, how it moves, how light falls on it, how it behaves as male or female and how this can be confused, how it feels to be embraced, caressed, communicated with through the touch of skin to skin. “Body heat, body heat,” the brothers chant, huddled together beneath a tented sheet, illuminating their private ritual with a flashlight, their best way to survive on a cold night. Though we’re not allowed access to the private circle, viewing it only from the outside, what happens inside this space seems to be as innocuous as it is necessary. But it’s also indicative of the latent sexuality of Jonah’s world, in which everyone seems to walk around half-dressed, half-wild, acting on any urge. This is the moment, for Jonah, when the undifferentiated sexuality of physical family relations begins to clarify itself into roles, into learned and accepted behaviors. But these developments are also tied up with all the dangers and pleasures of the boys’ environment, with Jonah’s particular sensitivity to these, so that the freedom of his feral life, hazardous and confining as it seems, also allows him, even forces him, to imagine other freedoms that may provide something like escape.
We the Animals is a remarkable and beautiful film, a hypnotic coming-of-age tale whose powerful images and expert editing create a visual world that feels true to memory and offers a unique perspective on life at the margins.
Written by: Michael Mejia
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