‘We the Animals’ captures childhood truths and perspectives
Directed by: Jeremiah Zagar
Written by: Jeremiah Zagar and Daniel Kitrosser, based on the novel by Justin Torres
Starring: Evan Rosado, Josiah Gabriel, Isaiah Kristian, Sheila Vand, and Raul Castillo
“We the Animals” – “I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down, and I knocked my brother down, and then we had tea.” – Poet Dylan Thomas
Based on title alone, one might surmise that “We the Animals” is an animated film, complete with a hippopotamus, giraffe, fox, antelope, parrot, and perhaps a lost penguin thrown in for good measure. No, director Jeremiah Zagar’s picture is not a quasi-descendent of “Madagascar” (2005) or “Kung Fu Panda” (2008).
Far from it.
“We the Animals” is a live-action movie about three preteen brothers, and the uninhabited, joyful and reckless spirit that many, many boys possess. Based on Justin Torres’ 2011 novel, the film features a financially-struggling family of five, and three kids’ (Manny (Isaiah Kristian), Joel (Josiah Gabriel) and Jonah (Evan Rosado)) worldviews, but primarily from Jonah’s perspective. He also narrates. Director Jeremiah Zagar takes an organic approach to portray childhood, by sometimes conveying dreamlike-states, as if Zagar is channeling Torres’ and his own boyhood-memories along with “snips and snails and puppy-dogs’ tails.”
Sure, the aforementioned nursery rhyme depicts an unfair description of boys, but yes, it rings with some truths, and Zagar captures that spirit.
In an Aug. 17, 2018 interview, Zagar said, “The book was wild, so the movie had to be wild and messy and dirty and alive.”
He also portrays the camaraderie and friendship of brothers, who garner shared histories and invent into their own rituals, like huddling together when chilly and chanting, “Body heat, body heat, body heat.”
Manny, Joel and Jonah live in a warm household with Paps (Raul Castillo) and Ma (Sheila Vand), as their parents certainly love and care for them and each other. Paps and Ma, however, also feel the heavy exertions of making ends meet, even though they live in a fairly-spacious 2,000 sq. foot, three-bedroom home in the semi-suburbs of Upstate New York. Their outdoor surroundings erupt with green and mosquitos in the summer and ache with cold and bare, brown matchstick-trees in the winter. Much like the heavily-varied seasonal weather, Paps’ and Ma’s moods also shift, but on assorted, unpredictable schedules, and an unfortunate incident triggers explosive consequences for Ma and Jonah, and eventually everyone in the household.
All five cope with this internal combustion, and while the boys rally to their communal defenses, Jonah also draws his feelings via crayon and paper, which occurs throughout the film. Jonah’s narration and illustrations grant insight into his feelings, which diverge in specific ways from his brothers, and they cinematically morph into frequent surges of crayon-animation and primal actions.
The kids are explorers, and they attempt to rule their domain with releases of pent-up aggression but also with lighter, counterbalanced amounts joy and humor. Zagar’s picture somewhat resembles “The Florida Project” (2017) in terms of perspective, style and the realities of the working poor, although director Sean Baker captures bright, vibrant colors and shapes of Orlando’s gift shops as the playground for his movie-kids. Meanwhile, “We the Animals” features muddy tones, free of modern consumer conveniences, which also force Jonah and his brothers into fantasy with the tools that they have.
Diving under a bed sheet with a flashlight or laying in the mud while starring at the sky are two nearby means to spur imaginations.
“We the Animals” is an imaginative, first-person assessment of the world, and it bursts with frustrations, passions and love. One may not find a snowman, nor will the kids enjoy cups of tea, but for 90 minutes, similar wild, messy, dirty, and alive boyhood-keepsakes pour off the screen.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.