After spending a decade helming documentary features, short films and documentary short, director Jeremiah Zagar embarks into the territory of narrative movies with We The Animals, an adaptation of a 2011 novel of the same name by Justin Toores. The film chronicles the troubled childhood of Jonah (Evan Rosado) and his two brothers, Manny (Isaiah Kristian) and Joel (Josiah Gabriel), who grow up under the same roof as their troubled parents who we only know as Ma (Sheila Vand) and Paps (Raul Castillo). Paps especially is a troublesome presence in Jonah's life given how often he turns to violent and aggressive behavior that takes its toll on Jonah and his siblings over time.
So disturbing is Jonah's life that he searches for any kind of escape from reality, whether that be hanging out with a nearby teenage boy, lying in a mud pit in his backyard or recurring animation segments that bring to life the drawings Jonah creates as an emotional outlet. We also get frequent narration from Jonah playing over scenes of at-home turmoil that feel like the most distracting element of We The Animals. The best parts of this movie depicting Jonah's at-home misery work because of their raw visceral nature and having a more heightened device like voice-over work from Jonah play out over some of these scenes or providing exposition elsewhere robs them of some of their reality.
The mere presence of Jonah's voicework tends to intrude on realistic scenes even before one gets to how Jonah's voiceover dialogue tends to over-explain character details that are either already obvious or are best left as visual suggestions. On the other hand, similarly heightened parts of We the Animals like the animation segments or occasional instances of abstract imagery meant to convey Jonah's desire to leave his troubled home tend to work far better because they're intentionally divorced from reality. These sequences are so separated from what Jonah and his siblings are living with on a daily basis that they might as well be occuring in a whole other solar system and that level of divorce between reality and Jonah's escape from it communicates a lot about the woe this youngster is going through.
In a brilliant touch, We the Animals echoes reality to an impressive degree in making Jonah's angst over his home life be explicitly that of a child who recognizes something is going wrong in the adults he turns to for immediate comfort, but being a child, he obviously doesn't understand everything that's going on. Maybe that's one reason the voice-over work stuck in my craw like it did, the voice-over suggests a sense of all-knowing perspective that feels at odds with how Jonah as a character is so fascinating because he's such a realistic depiction of a kid who is tormented by both the recognition of something being wrong with his parents but not being old enough to comprehend what it is yet.
That's one of the many thoughtful parts of the screenplay, written by Zagar and Dan Kitrosser, which is stuffed with mournful portrayals of childhood anguish. The depiction of how Jonah's older siblings begin to adopt more of their father's more toxic personality traits as they get older rings as an immensely tragic depiction of how the cycle of troubled parents can beget more troubled parents in the making. Meanwhile, the complex relationship Jonah has with his Dad is particularly well-handled as we see the good times he shared with his father (like in an excellent scene showing Jonah, his brothers and their father in the back of a pickup truck) but just through Jonah's interactions with his dad alone we also get the sense of how subtly damaging of a presence Paps can be for his sons.
The cast keeps in touch with the realistic nature of the script through performances that feel like they came straight out of reality, especially Evan Rosedo, Isaiah Kristian and Joel Josiah Gabriel. This trio of actors take a cue from the child performances seen in The 400 Blows and The Florida Project by making sure their own work as the leads of We the Animals depict children as the complex beings they are in real life. Jonah and his brothers aren't mechanisms for cutesy catchphrases or surprisingly profound witticisms, they're capable of being crude, mean, helpful and all the other good & bad behaviors children are capable of. Their performances are extremely good and, like the script and Zagar's direction, show a remarkable ability to channel the disturbing reality of growing up in a troubled childhood.
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