‘We the Animals’ highlights tumultuous childhood, fleeting youth

Sundance Film Festival/Courtesy

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Grade: 4.5/5.0

“When we were brothers, we wanted more,” says narrator and protagonist Jonah (Evan Rosado), and so begins “We the Animals,” a minimalist family drama following the theme that less is indeed more.

Reminiscent of other Bildungsroman lo-fi films, such as “Blue Citrus Hearts” (2003), the film has more in common with a documentary than it does with mainstream flicks. Characterization trumps plot, with the story unfolding much like everyday life does: slowly.

The realism of the film makes sense considering that its director, Jeremiah Zagar, worked primarily on documentaries prior to this. He drew his inspiration from the 2011 debut novel of the same title by Justin Torres.

Although Jonah narrates the film, he is initially an observer rather than the focus of the film. He watches the ordeals of his family, not always understanding everything he is witnessing and experiencing. The pain and tension, however, are no less dramatic.

Through Jonah’s observations, we learn about the fraught, frequently abusive relationship between white factory worker Ma (Sheila Vand) and Puerto Rican wage laborer Paps (Raúl Castillo). At the same time, the machismo-esque rebellious streaks of Jonah’s older brothers Manny (Isaiah Kristian) and Joel (Josiah Gabriel) are unfolding on-screen.

As Jonah becomes more in touch with who he is and how his same-gender attraction sets him apart from others, the film shifts to focus more on his self-discovery. More small details are honed in on, allowing viewers to pick up on what it is that Jonah himself finds important.

And Jonah’s emerging sexuality, while certainly important to his overall character, is a refreshingly quiet part of the narrative. It’s not highlighted as a unique or unusual quality of his identity but rather normalized — as it should be. We put the pieces of his same-gender attraction together slowly, through passing moments, such as a scene in which Jonah’s friend shows him and his brother a pornographic film. The other boys are entranced, whereas Jonah remains unfazed. Instead, it is his friend that catches his eye. Rather than putting the focus on this one aspect, the film conveys Jonah’s character as being informed by other pieces of his identity as well, such as his biracial heritage.

He is also an artist but chooses to hide (with good reason) his drawings and writing from his family, which favors practicality over such whims. These drawings are intermittently shown, animated images that depict what he is seeing in his mind. Jonah is quiet when it comes to verbal dialogue, but his drawings show a completely different side of him — one that is overwhelmed with the tension of growing up and realizing that he is different from his family in more ways than one.

“We the Animals,” is, fundamentally, a story about outsiders, further complicated by Jonah’s role as an outsider within his own family –– who are already outsiders of society because of their economic status. From the get-go, the narrative feels exceptionally real. All the children are able to pull off the raw emotion expected of someone in that situation, even though this is Rosado and Kristian’s first film. Their performances are authentic and simple, giving away to a story that is true to life.

But do not mistake this for a simple story about resilience. It is more primal than that — it is a story of survival.

No one in the film is content with their situation. But what is more important than being satisfied is moving forward and making it to a new day. It is the many-times told story of a blue-collar family, this time reimagined by highlighting a biracial family annexed from society for more than just its class.

So many 2018 films have shown just how much the cinematic landscape is changing in terms of representation and diversity, and “We the Animals” earns its place among them. Its careful peeling of emotional layers is slow, and perhaps it doesn’t invent the poverty-struck narrative — but it takes into account a group often cast aside.

A film like this, at a time like this, shouldn’t be ignored.

Contact Alex Jiménez at [email protected]. Tweet her at @alexluceli.