There are a number of films like Jeremiah Zagar’s We the Animals that attempt to really peg the confusion, fear and love of growing up. There are similarities to movies like Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are (2009) and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011), both stylistically and thematically. But there’s a fire and a heart in Zagar’s ethereal little movie that those two examples are missing, something that not only sets it apart from similar films but also makes it special on its own merits.
Based on Justin Torres’ well-regarded novel of the same name, the movie is built around a simple premise, following a young boy named Jonah (Evan Rosado) in the months surrounding his 10th birthday. What we’re shown is a happy family life with his parents (Sheila Vand from A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and Raúl Castillo) and two brothers (Josiah Gabriel and Isaiah Kristian) that soon turns into something much more violent and flimsy than it appears at glances. There’s also an amount of the prepubescent Jonah innocently entering the first stages of his own sexual awakening and queerness.
In this way, the film is more about feeling and emotion than anything else. The movie’s sole purpose is to show the way in which we drift through childhood, never truly understanding what is happening and instead following along to where events take us. The violence and anger of Jonah’s father is never excused by any means, but the movie does show how complicated relationships like those can be, as well as the ways in which love can be unconditional and still muddy the waters of what makes the most sense for one’s life.
The film is never really explicit about what is happening or has happened, instead attempting to replicate how a child would see the world. This isn’t just in the way the story is told, which passes through events with little explanation, but also aesthetically. All of the camera angles give a child’s-eye view, and its grainy, washed-out photography gives the sense of old home movies or distant memory.
Director Zagar has a background in documentary filmmaking, something that gives We the Animals its sense of realness. There’s a definite cinéma vérité style to the movie that thankfully never feels obnoxious or dull. At the same time, there are fantastical elements that never seem forced but instead — once again — are used to convey emotion without overdoing it. Everything about Zagar’s film feels measured, heartfelt and above all, thought out. Genuine care and craftsmanship are on display here, two things that make We the Animals special. Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, language and some underage drug and alcohol use.
Now playing at Grail Moviehouse.