Allow me to be wholly unoriginal for a second: growing up in a dysfunctional household is tough. It’s an easy enough concept to grasp and has been utilized to great success in the realm of cinema, but unless you’ve lived it, you can never truly comprehend the damage it does to a developing psyche. I know, because I’ve been there. I understand the nuances of having a problematic father, the seemingly inescapable scenario that puts a young mother in, and the grind of being in a chaotic environment. Which is why I have not been able to shake free from the grasp of We the Animals, documentarian Jeremiah Zagar’s first foray into narrative feature filmmaking (and an adaptation of Justin Torres’ 2011 novel of the same name). I have seen it three times now, twice by myself and once with my mom, sister, and grandma, and each time has been more illuminating than the last.
The story revolves around Jonah (Evan Rosado), a sensitive 10 year old boy, and his slightly older brothers Manny (Isaiah Kristian) and Joel (Josiah Gabriel), their white mother “Ma” (Sheila Vand), and their Puerto Rican father, “Paps” (Raúl Castillo). They live in a modest house somewhere in upstate New York, surrounded by lakes and rivers aplenty, and the three brothers exhibit the type of untamed sense of self that you’d expect from the title and their upbringing. They pound their chests, run around with boundless energy, roar into fans, throw rocks at passing cars, and forgo shirts frequently. None of them had prior acting experience before being cast—the result of an exhaustive search that saw Zagar and company meet with hundreds of children—but you’d never know it based on a dynamic so believable, you’d be surprised they weren’t brothers in real life. As the focal point, Rosado especially shines, his wide blue eyes in constant closeup, processing the disorder in front of him. As the film progresses, he discovers his sexuality, and the tenderness of his performance highlights the complicated awakening he undergoes.
That believability extends to Ma and Paps as well, courtesy of Zagar’s documentary background. He wanted the film to feel as real as possible, and let me tell you, mission accomplished. Castillo’s performance resonated with me on a level I can’t quite explain. Paps isn’t a great person, not by a long shot—domestic abuse is never forgivable—but Castillo instills the character with just enough vulnerability that he stops short of being a true villain, perfectly embodying the frustrating dynamic of a man with an essentially good heart who continually does the wrong thing. I’m not trying to excuse his behavior, but you can tell he genuinely cares for his family; all Jonah and his brothers want is stability, and the moments where we see it work out makes the fallout of his misguided actions all the more heartbreaking.
Vand turns in an equally powerful display as a woman caught between a rock and a hard place. On some level, she loves Paps and doesn’t want to split up her family, but as a victim of domestic abuse, she recognizes the danger she is in. There is a scene where she rounds up her kids at the crack of dawn, fully intending to escape, and begs them for direction as they drive around aimlessly. “We can leave him, we can do that,” she says, tears in her eyes, the left bruised from the previous night’s beating. Though her circumstances are different than my mother’s, in Ma’s words I feel the weight of her and all the women who have faced this dilemma before. I won’t lie, the scene makes me choke up, and Vand’s delivery is a big reason why.
For as realistic as the film is, it’s not without its moments of fantasy. Jonah keeps a diary that plays a critical role in the film, which gives us direct insight into his mind. An artist at heart, he sketches constantly, and the film animates those sketches with a scribbly animation style reminiscent of a child’s drawings (though the subject matter is much darker than normal). These animated sequences serve as nice transitions and help infuse the narrative with context and wonder. Likewise, several dreamlike underwater moments (Jonah is scared of swimming) punctuate the already palpable sense of turmoil burgeoning throughout.
We the Animals is the type of movie I live for, a naturalistic character drama with a strong family dynamic. Of course, my personal history makes it hit harder than it will for most, but even without that, it’s still a luminous achievement, anchored by a uniformly excellent cast and gorgeous visuals courtesy of Zak Mulligan’s 16mm photography. We still have a third of the year left, and multiple heavy hitters to come, but I’ll be surprised if a film rocks me to the core of my being quite like this one did. And if you don’t believe me, take my grandma’s word for it: “That was incredible.”