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    We the Animals: A Messy, Heartbreaking and Fantastic Film

    By Gary M. Kramer–

    Justin Torres’ messy, heartbreaking novel We the Animals has been adapted for the screen by director Jeremiah Zagar, who co-wrote the script with gay playwright Dan Kitrosser. The result is a messy, heartbreaking and fantastic film, full of hard-edged realism and moments of magical realism.

    The story concerns three brothers, Jonah (Evan Rosado), Manny (Isaiah Kristian) and Joel (Josiah Gabriel), who live in Utica, New York, with their volatile father, Paps (Raúl Castillo), and their fragile mother (Sheila Vand). The brothers are close, and mostly fearless, playing in the nearby woods and wreaking havoc in the house with their noise and wild antics.

    Jonah, the film’s protagonist, is the youngest and the most sensitive of the three. He crawls under their shared bed at night to secretly draw images that become animated from time to time (courtesy of Mark Samsonovich). He loves his mother, and is enamored with his father, but his parents do not always get along.

    We the Animals is an impressionistic film that focuses more on mood than plot. There are moments of drama—as when Paps leaves the family after an upsetting incident—but what is most palpable in the wake of his absence is the heat, the hunger and the desperation the kids feel being left alone with Ma, who is depressed and won’t cook, or eat, or get out of bed.

    Zagar films many scenes in close-up, capturing the intimate details of the characters as they eke out a life. Chasing the kids through the woods, or catching their faces hiding behind a shower curtain as Paps tries to seduce Ma, are enchanting scenes that reflect the innocence and mischief of childhood. Cinematographer Zak Mulligan bathes the film in a natural light. That the sun offers brightness, if not exactly warmth, only adds to the film’s burnished tone.

    The film does address some heavier themes as the kids meet a young man nearby who shows them some pornographic videos. While Manny and Joel are excited by most of what they see, they express their disgust at a snippet of two men having sex. Jonah, however, is intrigued by the gay video, silently acknowledging his same-sex attractions. He later realizes them in his dreams and drawings. He eventually hopes to act on them with the neighbor.

    We the Animals is more of a coming-of-age tale than a coming out story. There is a loss of innocence as Jonah (and Manny and Joel) grapple with their parents’ fighting. And while there is a scene where Paps gives Jonah a haircut, symbolizing a life change, mostly the film lets the kids be kids, stealing food, slapping their father in humor and anger, or hiding under a sheet chanting “body heat, body heat.” One of the best scenes in the film has the brothers mimicking their dad when they are riding in the back bed of a truck, hanging over the sides watching the landscape pass by upside down.

    The film’s magic, therefore, lies in the cumulative power of the episodes that form and shape Jonah’s life. He panics in an early scene where Paps tries to teach Jonah how to swim in a lake. And there is a curious scene where Paps digs a grave in the backyard, only to have Jonah lie on the muddy bottom and imagine himself floating above the ground.

    These scenes convey the fear and possibility of childhood, but they also serve as metaphors for Jonah’s budding sexuality. His masculine intimacy with his father and brothers is comfortable until it isn’t. He kisses his mother full on the mouth in one scene; that causes her to shun him. And his fantasy about kissing the blonde male neighbor might end badly if acted upon. This buried tension informs the film and provides a narrative thread that builds to the stunning conclusion.

    The performances by the three kids are terrific. They have a camaraderie that feels natural, never forced. They play well together and even the few times it becomes two against one, it does not remain that way for too long. Evan Rosado is fantastic in his role as Jonah. He expresses a depth to his character that resonates, because he carries his small body as if he has the weight of the world on his shoulders. It’s a remarkable debut performance.

    In support, Raúl Castillo impresses as Paps, a man who never quite does the right thing but always seems to be looking for a break. When he articulates being stuck in poverty after one particular setback, it is devastating. Likewise, Sheila Vand holds her own against Castillo, being both tough and vulnerable as her life grows increasingly more unbearable.

    We the Animals is both downbeat and life-affirming. It races along like a child going every which way before stopping in its tracks and landing an emotional wallop. 

    © 2018 Gary M. Kramer

    Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer