Review: 'We the Animals' a haunting, dreamlike look at dysfunctional family

Last Updated by Chip Chandler on
"We the Animals" opens Friday at Westgate Mall 6.
Courtesy The Orchard

"We the Animals" trailer

By Chip Chandler — Producer

"I remember your heart inside me, tickin' like a bomb."

That's the unnamed Ma (Sheila Vand), comforting her youngest child Jonah (Evan Rosado), but take note of her choice of words: "like a bomb."

Love and violence are intertwined throughout We the Animals, a powerful new coming-of-age drama opening Friday at Premiere Cinemas Westgate Mall 6, 7701 W. Interstate 40.

Based on an autobiographical novel by Justin Torres, We the Animals throws us headlong into the lives of three brothers — Manny (Isaiah Kristian), Joel (Josiah Gabriel) and the aforementioned Jonah, who's part of the nearly feral pack at first, but finds himself growing apart from his siblings as he begins to figure himself out.

Though the boys are a unit initially, we're definitely seeing the story through Jonah's eyes and, accordingly, it's an impressionistic view of the family's tumultuous life. Paps (Raúl Castillo, Looking) and Ma love each other and their children, but financial hardships, job uncertainty and volatile tempers often lead to tempestuous, sometimes brutal arguments.

In one early, tense sequence, a day at the river near their upstate New York home turns frightening when Paps lets go of Jonah in the deep water in a nightmarish attempt at a swimming lesson. 

At another point, we see evidence of a physical assault, though not the actual fight itself. But there's no question that Paps can be abusive, just as he can be loving. Ma can be depressive but also dreamy, fantasizing about living in Spain with her sons, where "all the boys look like you."

Jonah observes this all closely, though his 10-year-old brain can't always understand what's actually going on. He sneaks out of the boys' joint bed at night, climbs underneath and writes and sketches in his journal; we see the illustrations come vividly to life thanks to animator Mark Samsonovich.

Director Jeremiah Zagar makes his feature debut with the film after a career making documentary films, which perhaps accounts for some of the intimacy and for the natural performances by his three young, nonprofessional stars.  

Shot on Super 16mm film, Animals is like a 1980s photograph come to life — warm, earthy colors, inky blacks. It reminded me of Terrence Malick's Tree of Life, especially in the way Zagar lets the visuals tell so much of the story, paring the dialogue down to only the essentials.

The film also reminded me of last year's superb The Florida Project in its clear-eyed view of life below the poverty line, though Jonah is a little older than that film's protagonist and deals with more internal angst than she did, particularly in his charged encounters with a teenage neighbor. In that way, it also reflects Moonlight — but what Zagar has accomplished here isn't mere mimicry, but instead a fusion of influences into a new artistic creation.

Animals ends fairly ambigously, and we hope that the family is strong enough to survive what will happen as Jonah grows up and grows into himself more.

(R for strong sexual content, nudity, language and some underage drug and alcohol use; click here for showtimes at Premiere Cinemas Westgate Mall 6, 7701 W. Interstate 40)

 

 

Chip Chandler is a producer for Panhandle PBS and a member of GALECA. He can be contacted at Chip.Chandler@actx.edu, at @chipchandler1 on Twitter and on Facebook.

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