We the Animals

 

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Out of the blue we have a film centred on a 10-year-old boy which ranks high among recent cinema releases.

 
We the Animals

Sheila Vand and Evan Rosado 

 

We the Animals is a memorably good film about childhood and one that is all the more remarkable because its director, Jeremiah Zagar, has until now worked only as a documentarist. In the event, he proves well able to draw exceptional performances from his players who include three children - all non-professionals - in the leading roles. Furthermore, his vision in bringing to the screen the novel by Justin Torres (he is co-writer of the screenplay with Daniel Kitrosser) is unusually imaginative taking him well beyond documentary naturalism.

 

As it happens, We the Animals is a recollection of childhood in the 1990s in upstate New York, Utica being a main location. Yet, while not lacking in local colour, the film comes across as universally recognisable in its truth. Initially it’s a celebration of brotherhood as Jonah in voice over looks back on his ten-year-old self when, with his slightly older brothers Joel and Manny, the three of them were inseparable playmates even when running wild. Before long, however, we realise that the boys’ parents, who had married young, are too erratic to provide a stable home: the Puerto Rican father (Raúl Castillo) comes and goes, his return uncertain, argues with the mother (Sheila Vand) and even hits her. In consequence, she withdraws into herself to the children’s detriment but also starts to impose herself on Jonah by wanting him in compensation to remain her baby boy.

 

First and foremost, this is Jonah’s story and, while Josiah Gabriel as Joel and Isaiah Kristian as Manny are utterly persuasive, it is Evan Rosado who dominates as he brings Jonah fully to life in an outstanding performance. The adult players are good too and one of the surprises of We the Animals is its non-judgmental tone: there is no whitewashing of the parents’ flaws but, especially in the case of the father, there is an unsentimental pity for his situation. Much here is played naturalistically but we became aware of other levels too. If the voice over turns the whole film into a kind of flashback, the use of drawings adds another layer. What we see here is meant to be the work of young Jonah, drawings indicative of artistic skills that reveal his inner fears and also an early awareness of gay feelings accentuated when he encounters a teenage boy named Dustin (Giovanni Pacciarelli). The fact that we see these drawings animated adds to the sense of this being a film that, although birthed in naturalism, actually goes beyond it. Arguably, this element, emphasised at the close particularly, is taken rather too far in contrast to earlier scenes that successfully blend realism and what we feel to be metaphor. Also, the gay element which develops is possibly slightly less persuasive than the rest but in any case it is as a general portrait of childhood and not as a gay movie that this film needs to be seen. Now and again the stylisation is a shade too strong, but for the most part We the Animals is an outstanding achievement and it will be surprising if 2019 yields any other performance by a child actor to equal that by Evan Rosado.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Evan Rosado, Josiah Gabriel, Isaiah Kristian, Sheila Vand, Raúl Castillo, Giovanni Pacciarelli, Moe Isaa, Mickey Anthony, Tom Malley.

 

Dir Jeremiah Zagar, Pro Jeremy Yaches, Andrew Goldman, Christina D. King, and Paul Mezey, Screenplay Daniel Kitrosser, and Jeremiah Zagar, from the novel by Justin Torres, Ph Zak Mulligan, Pro Des Katie Hickman, Ed Keiko Deguchi and Brian A. Kates, Music Nick Zammuto, Costumes Emily Batson and Valentine Freeman, Animation Mark Samsonovich.

 

Cinereach/Public Record-Eureka Entertainment.
94 mins. USA. 2018. Rel: 14 June 2019. Cert. 15.