Documentary filmmaker Jeremiah Zagar (In a Dream, Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart) brings his expressionist leanings to his scripted narrative debut feature. With the care and rigor of his journalistic skill set, Zagar uses his introduction into fiction to brilliantly captures the trials and triumphs of society’s periphery. We the Animals, a stirring portrait of youth, is a requiem for innocence lost.
Our heroes are a family living in working-class squalor, struggling to make ends meet in rural upstate New York during the 1980s. Because their parents (Sheila Vand, Raúl Castillo) are unable to provide a stable home environment for them, brothers Jonah, Manny, and Joel (Evan Rosado, Isaiah Kristian, and Josiah Gabriel, respectively) are thrust into the responsibilities of adulthood at far too early an age. As they get caught up in childhood shenanigans, we are shown their burgeoning relationship with nature, as well as how it affects the ways in which they absorb the world around them. Because this is a dysfunctional family as viewed through the eyes of young children, the film doesn’t feel tempted to spell anything out for the viewer. We are limited to the somewhat naïve viewpoint of the youngsters, and as a result, We the Animals becomes a very intuitive film. The audience is shown the stark difference between the brothers’ innocent perception of the world and the sobering reality of their circumstances, particularly in regards to the way they understand masculinity.
“The audience is shown the stark difference between the brothers’ innocent perception of the world and the sobering reality of their circumstances…”
Zagar brings Justin Torres’s semi-autobiographical novel to life with a sense of poetic realism that is caught somewhere between The Florida Project and The Tree of Life. The result is a series of intricate interlocking gears, a beautiful mosaic driven by emotive music and abrasive visuals. Between Zak Mulligan’s vibrant cinematography and the rapid editing of duo Keiko Deguchi and Brian A. Kates, We the Animals is a constant reminder that film is a collaborative endeavor. Cloaked in a fantastical haze, it’s shot on film, giving it the aesthetic trappings of a grainy fever dream. Every frame boasts a noticeable texture and many of the film’s most gripping passages are completely devoid of dialogue, as Zagar makes a conscious effort to master the efficiency of visual language.
While all of these deeply naturalistic performances are great, it is newcomer Evan Rosado who is the real standout. He is tasked with balancing an incredibly intense cocktail of emotions, as well as a blossoming queer identity, and he does so with the grace and precision of a seasoned veteran. Jonah is the audience’s spiritual guide, even when he himself is overcome by the staggering wave of divergence and is forced to use sketching his desires as his sole emotional release. It’s a delicate, troublesome role, and yet Rosado fully captures its mystifying empathy in a career-making turn.
We the Animals is a quiet, lyrical movie, approached with the attentive eye of a documentarian. A clear admirer of Moonlight, Jeremiah Zagar’s coming-of-age odyssey shines a spotlight on an outsider who has yet to develop the vocabulary necessary to advocate for himself. Although it can often be heartbreaking, the film is not without its optimism, framing the world as a series of challenges that must be overcome in the struggle for identity. Jonah is fighting an uphill battle, but he is equipped with the tools needed to take control of his own destiny.
We the Animals (2018) Directed by Jeremiah Zagar. Written By Jeremiah Zagar, Dan Kitrosser. Starring Evan Rosado, Sheila Vand, Raúl Castillo, Isaiah Kristian, Josiah Gabriel.
9 out of 10