We the Animals isn’t the sort of film that much concerns itself with the more usual conventions of filmmaking, such as the passage of time or even plot itself. It’s more of a mood, punctuated by clear whacks of emotional trauma. It’s a little bit like watching a poem. Based on the semiautobiographical novel by Justin Torres, it’s a hazy portrait of three brothers coming of age in 1980s upstate New York, the spawn of working-class parents who have two settings in their relationship: getting almost too intimate in front of their children, or screaming and beating the shit out of each other. Paps (Castillo) leaves; Ma (Vand) is despondent; he comes back; rinse and repeat. The boys (Rosado, Gabriel, and Kristian) are often left to fend for themselves, stealing food from the corner store or relying on the kindness of a neighbor with a vegetable garden.
This is director Jeremiah Zagar’s first narrative feature, but his experience making documentaries serves him well here. The grainy, handheld footage evokes the waywardness of home video, or an old photograph come to life. At times the film is vibrant, almost glowing, and warm, and sometimes a little more washed out, faded with time. The script, written by Zagar and Daniel Kitrosser, is economical in the sense that the most brutalizing scenes are almost wordless. Jonah (Rosado), whose POV is prominent by way of on-again, off-again narration, kisses his mother on her beaten mouth. One moment the two are snuggling and the next she is throwing him off the bed, where he crouches like, well, an animal. Rosado wears a perpetual mix of confusion and hurt, as though it’s his default setting. Additionally, the chemistry between brothers is real, often moving as three parts of the same whole: whether huddling together while chanting “body heat, body heat, body heat,” banging on drums, or running wild through the woods. One says, “it’s not our fault”; the other, “it’s always our fault” in a Greek chorus of survivor logic.
The storytelling embraces alternative techniques that almost border on the experimental. Real-life scenes transition (not always smoothly) into animation of Jonah’s secret drawings he works on under the bed at night with a flashlight. Other scenes are surrealistic. There’s a heavy dose of pathos, though the film isn’t without its moments of levity. And while the narrative is fragmented, like a memory, by the end there’s a seismic shift: And that’s something like evolution.
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