On one level, the film is a classic coming-of age tale; on another, it’s a near-perfect depiction of the emotional damage that can result from economic insecurity.
A tiny, uncut gem of a movie, “We the Animals” is the first narrative feature from nonfiction filmmaker Jeremiah Zagar and, as such, its subordination of plot to character and observation makes perfect sense. Most of that observation is through the eyes of Jonah (Evan Rosado), the film’s occasional narrator and the youngest of three preteen brothers in a blue-collar family in upstate New York. On one level, then, “We the Animals” is a classic coming-of age tale; on another, it’s a near-perfect depiction of the emotional damage that can result from economic insecurity.
“We’re never gonna escape this,” the boys’ father, Paps (the marvelous Raúl Castillo, best known for the HBO series “Looking”), exclaims at one point. Ma (Sheila Vand) flinches; she works in a brewery, while Paps is more serially employed in minimum-wage jobs. They met in Brooklyn as teenagers, and now their children run wild, an affectionately rowdy, half-naked pack seemingly unperturbed by their parents’ volatile cycle of flaring arguments and passionate reconciliations.
But Jonah, about to turn 10 and more sensitive than his siblings (Isaiah Kristian and Josiah Gabriel), is taking it all in. Escaping into a fantasy world of drawings (gently animated by Mark Samsonovich), he struggles to process a deprived, disordered home that can swing from loving to terrifying in minutes. Trauma is never far away, often appearing in the most innocent disguises, like a simple swimming lesson that becomes a petrifying test of manliness. And when Paps suddenly storms out and Ma, black-eyed and broken-lipped, takes to her bed for days, their hungry children go with the flow, turning a convenience-store raid into another adventure.
Adapted from the 2011 novel by Justin Torres, Zagar and Daniel Kitrosser’s script prioritizes mood and moment over a more traditional story structure. At the same time, cinematographer Zak Mulligan emphasizes the movie’s ’90s setting by choosing mostly 16-millimeter film. This gives its rough-rural exteriors and rundown interiors (filmed in and around Utica, New York) a dreamy, nostalgic glaze speckled with lambent light, like the fingerprints of memory. The result is a movie that’s more effective visually than narratively, its threads woven so loosely that at times they almost disappear.
What remains constant, though, is a free-floating anxiety that binds the boys (all nonprofessional actors) closer together, moving as if sharing a single skin. Yet beneath that skin, Jonah is slowly pulling away, drawn to a neighbor’s basement where a lounging, towheaded young man silently rewatches mildly pornographic tapes. To the child, neither the images nor the man’s fascination with them are comprehensible, yet his desire to return to that cramped, decaying space is too strong to ignore.
Fragile yet resilient, “We the Animals” has an elemental quality that’s hugely endearing, using air and water and the deep, damp earth to fashion a dreamworld where big changes occur in small, sometimes symbolic ways. Cocooned in this limbo, Jonah puzzles over adult behavior and the incipient sexuality that will finally cleave him from his brothers. Their path to manhood suddenly looks nothing like his own.