A tender and sometimes terrifying story of a young boy’s discovery of his identity and artistic ability, “We the Animals” unfolds almost as a dream, albeit it one that never shies away from the often hopeless reality of what it’s like to grow up poor in America.
Documentary filmmaker Jeremiah Zagar’s first foray into narrative storytelling finds a natural fit with Justin Torres’ slim, loosely structured 2011 novel about three brothers navigating their unstable household. Zagar, judiciously adapting the book with Daniel Kitrosser, submerges the audience into their world from the outset, presenting a fluid stream of bittersweet and vivid episodes from the family’s life that gradually build into something profound.
The brothers — sensitive Jonah (newcomer Evan Rosado, a true find) and his older siblings, Manny (Isaiah Kristian) and Joel (Josiah Gabriel) — are inseparable and almost indistinguishable at first, a knot of entwined limbs and unflagging energy. They live with their Puerto Rican father (Raúl Castillo) and white mother (Sheila Vand) in upstate New York. (The movie was shot in Utica.)
The mother and father met as teenagers and struggle financially and emotionally. We observe their love and their failings through the eyes of the boys, with Zagar and cinematographer Zak Mulligan shooting with wide lenses, close to the characters, achieving an intimacy by patiently presenting the action with a keen eye toward how their behavior shapes the children.
And, of course, the brothers understand more than their parents think they do. When the dad tells the boys that their mother had to have her wisdom teeth removed and that, during the procedure, the dentist was “punching on her a little,” they know it’s a lie. He beat her. Shortly afterward, the father leaves and the mother falls into a depression, leaving the children to fend for themselves. At that point, “We the Animals” brings to mind Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project,” unfurling a series of scenes that are boisterously funny and heartbreaking, often simultaneously.
Gradually, “We the Animals” moves from the collective to the point of view of Jonah. We see that he’s different, watching him as he hides under the bed at night, furiously writing illustrated stories as he attempts to understand the turmoil and commotion of his daily existence. Zagar cuts away to these fierce illustrations with hand-drawn animation that reveals Jonah’s intense inner life.
Part of this involves the dawning discovery of his queer identity, a revelation that Zagar handles with sensitive restraint, an approach that makes these scenes all the more powerful. By the film’s end, we’re painfully aware of the challenges this young man faces. Jonah has heard his father tell his mother, “We’re never going to escape this.” He’s still hopeful enough to believe otherwise, and “We the Animals” cautiously presents that optimism as both reasonable and crucial.
‘We the Animals’
Rating: R, for strong sexual content, nudity, language and some underage drug and alcohol use
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes
Playing: The Landmark, West Los Angeles