We The Animals is a simple, poetic story about boyhood, and like Moonlight it follows a young character at a pivotal time in his life. In a turbulent home life, brothers Jonah (Evan Rosado), Manny, and Joel navigate growing up and realizing their identities. Jonah’s introspective narration guides us through poignant moments and he becomes the film’s gentle driving force: although separated from his brothers and disappointing his father because of his differences, he is adored by his mother and grows up to realize his own identity. Even if it felt slow at times, I never found it predictable, or unengaging.
The film opens with a pulse and this percussive beat carries the action. Hand drawings, it becomes apparent, are a big part of the film, expressing what can’t be verbalized. Sketches come to life, transporting Jonah and his inner world out into a dreamy, higher version of reality. Maybe it’s laid on a bit thick sometimes, but this artistic vision is what director Jeremiah Zagar (Remains, In A Dream) is aiming for: building on his experience in documentary-making, he has turned to an immediate, handheld camera style to get across a story that feels very carefully captured.
I have to admit it’s not exactly what I expected. I came prepared for a nostalgia fix, brotherly bonding and a celebration of childhood – and while it is all of those things, it’s also a much quieter, much more sober and thoughtful look at life. A lot less hype, but in fact, I’m glad it worked out like that.
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We The Animals
Director: Jeremiah Zagar
Release Date: August 17, 2018
Jonah’s family consists of himself, his two brothers and his parents, who are both fiercely affectionate and dangerously volatile towards each other. If you’re anything like me, We The Animals might have you feeling tense the whole way through – it’s unpredictable, and even throughout quiet, happier moments, it feels as if something bad is lurking just around the corner. This turns out to be true 99% of the time, but on occasion, things pass by quietly. It keeps you on your toes.
Jonah’s father is both loving and aggressive: both he and Jonah’s mother try abortive attempts at leaving the family home, but in the end, it feels as if the family bond that they share is too deep to allow them to escape very far. As Manny comments after a night of desperately trying to drive away and failing, “I thought we were finally home somewhere.” It’s an example of a tricky home life that’s evident in This Boy’s Life or Once Were Warriors (both great films that show a complicated family dynamic), and shares a lot of similarities, showing families as social outcasts, victims of social injustice. Jonah is further singled out of this isolated family unit: he is bullied by his brothers when they grow up, but he uses this to shape who he is. You kind of feel for each of the characters, because they’ve all got a lot on their plates – no-one’s perfect, but everyone has something likeable about them.
No explicit context or background is given, but it’s not really needed: it’s apparent through on-location filming in Park City, Utah, that this could be anyone’s story in the 80s, complete with cassettes and VHS tapes. There’s some suggestion that this Puerto Rican family is at the mercy of better-off, white characters: along the street, the brothers encounter a white student from a distance, and there is an apparent hostility between them. Later, the boys are caught shoplifting by a man who has no idea about their destitution. Only a kindly elderly farmer and his grandson take pity on them, welcoming them into his home and treating them as guests rather than outsiders.
There are also suggestions that the family was not always so hard done by the out-of-town house they occupy, if old and faded now, seems spacious and once homely. A racist slur by the father’s employer, though, grounds the film, creating a distinct ‘us and them’ boundary that proves that the worlds this family and the rest of their town occupy are unable to meet in the middle. Combined with the family’s lack of contact with the outside world (when the mother goes into depression, no help is offered – and the boys are never seen at school), it creates the idea of a family who is weighed down by difficulties but has nothing else but each other.
During one flashback, shots are framed through red, blue and green color filters which bring the experience of memory to life. Jonah’s vivid imagination (and Zagar’s sensitivity to light and color) make this film stand out from others like it. Nick Zammuto’s score is also incredibly warm, making use of an expansive string section and ambient, glass-like pitches, linking it to shallow depth-of-field shots and a minimalist style. I’m a big fan of movie scores, and Nick Zammuto doesn’t disappoint, with a soundscape that complements the action well and is up with the likes of Rob Simonsen and Thomas Newman.
The style, on the whole, is very naturalistic – in one shot in the back of a truck, Manny even draws attention to the camera, turning it towards himself and posing, as if it is all part of the story world. It’s a surprisingly fun moment in a film that tends to be quite sober. Although the story is based on Justin Torres’ 2011 novel of the same name, it seems as if it could easily have been influenced by real events in the author’s life. In an earlier post, I linked it to City of God, and it’s clear that it shares similarities, but as this boy grows up there is much more of an emotional struggle.
We The Animals really is unlike a lot of films I’ve seen before. Its artistic style is a credit to its director, and the fact that it’s so unpredictable means that it’s tense, unconventional and engaging. It’s sad that the temporary illusions of happiness are often shattered, but the film ends optimistically, promising a new chapter, an uplifting break.