Movie Review – We the Animals
Jeremiah Zagar has adapted the 2011, semi-autobiographical novel by Justin Torres. Zagar was at the screening in Philadelphia for a Q&A. There, he said one of his inspirations was City of God (2003). In terms of how he shot the film, the actual 16mm film, he’s correct, but, as I watched, there were obvious comparisons. The first is The Tree of Life (2011) and the second is The Florida Project (2017). The comparisons sprang because the film centers on and is told from the perspective of a child. It follows a child almost as if the camera is a child too chasing after him. The comparisons continue as the films all deal with issues and struggles of parenting and sibling dynamics. The comparisons with The Tree of Life are particularly apt, given how Zagar edits this movie, which is more reminiscent of how Terrence Malick edits his movies, especially with the presence of voice-over narration, though Zagar’s narration isn’t as hushed and poetic. The comparisons to The Florida Project by Sean Baker are also particularly apt, given how slice-of-life it is and how insightful into impoverished lives it wants to be. Unfortunately, Zagar’s film doesn’t feel as cohesive as Malick and Baker’s films. There is some disjointed aspects that are interesting by themselves but don’t add up when put together.
What distinguishes this movie from the others is that it focuses on a Latino family and the children who are biracial. Raúl Castillo (Seven Seconds and Looking) stars as the Puerto Rican father to three boys living in upstate New York. He’s referred to as “Paps.” He works as a security guard. He’s also a complicated man when it comes to his family but he does seem to love them. Sheila Vand (A Girl Walks Home At Night and Argo) co-stars as the white mother to the three boys. She’s referred to as “Ma.” She works in some factory. She too is complicated and certainly has complicated feelings about her husband who is abusive.
In terms of disjointed aspects or things that aren’t as cohesive, an abusive husband is the first. Evan Rosado plays Jonah, the youngest of the three boys who’s about to celebrate his 10th birthday. Jonah is the narrator and his voice is what’s heard in the voice-over. It’s through his eyes that this whole film unfolds. This movie is totally Jonah’s point-of-view, and through which we experience the abusiveness of the husband. It’s never direct. Jonah never sees the physical act. He hears sounds, arguing and screaming, but he never sees his father hit his mother. He only sees the aftermath, the bruises on his mother but he knows what’s happening.
I suppose that if that’s all the film wants to say about that situation, then that’s fine. The father is a complicated man who loves his kids but he beats his wife. The mother is complicated. She argues, yells and kicks him out, but she doesn’t report him. She takes him back. Even when she thinks she should leave him, she goes back. People in abusive relationships on both sides doing nothing but perpetuating those abusive relationships isn’t enlightening. Zagar handles the material quite well, but there is no particular insight beyond what the title suggests.
We get a glimpse of insight in how this abusive relationship is affecting the children. Jonah and his two older brothers who are only a year or two older act out in violent ways too. This could be a result of behavior being modeled after their father. It also suggests where Paps got his abusive streak too, but it could also be the result of boys being boys or again a reinforcement of the title.
Yet, as a child, there are things that Jonah isn’t privy to knowing, so there is a distance from things that this film maintains, which is true to the child perspective that Zagar wants as consistent, but it’s also frustrating. One early example is how Paps is kicked out and Ma is bedridden after having been battered, leaving the children to starve and forcing them to steal for food. This is one of those disjointed aspects. The kids being so hungry that they have to ravage and steal feels like a thread that shouldn’t be left dangling but it is and isn’t connected to anything substantial that happens later.
It’s merely a plot point to get Jonah to meet Dustin, played by Giovanni Pacciarelli, a slightly older, teenage, white kid who is the son of a farmer with a tasty garden. Jonah and his brothers stumble upon it and steal food from the garden. Jonah runs into Dustin and is clearly attracted. It’s the cap to another disjointed aspect, that of the homoeroticism at play here.
First, it starts with this idea of body heat. The majority of the film seems to take place in the summer. At least, the first, two acts occur in what seems like summer. The last act happens in the winter with a snowy landscape surrounding, but, for most of the time, it feels hot and it’s expressed with all three boys being constantly shirtless. They run around, sleep side-by-side and get under covers together often times in nothing but their underwear or shorts.
There aren’t many films that explore the sexuality or sexual desires of people under the age of 14. However, there have been some notable ones recently. Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade is one such this year. Others include Moonlight (2016) and Esteros (2016). This one has to be one with the youngest as its protagonist with Jonah who is only 9 and about to turn 10. Now, with all the body heat stuff, I don’t think the film is suggesting any kind of incestuous desire between the brothers. Zagar is merely trying to underline a kind of sensuality.
However, there are times where it seems as though there is some kind of Oedipus complex between Jonah and his father. When it comes to sensuality, it’s particularly played up between those two. One scene has Jonah lying in his father’s lap and his father’s arms wrapped around him with his father intimately whispering in Jonah’s ear that “I got a pretty one.” This could be Paps’ acknowledgment of his son’s queer nature, which he codes as “pretty” or it could just be literal recognition of Jonah’s physical beauty.
Zagar’s camera certainly doesn’t shy from Paps’ physical beauty, as embodied by Castillo. It begins with focusing on Paps as he’s doing a dance, a shirtless dance that is corny but also sexy. It continues when Paps initiates intercourse in the bathroom with his wife, knowing full well that the boys and Jonah are also in the room and can blatantly see and hear that intercourse. Either Paps doesn’t care or he wants his boys to see him engaged in a sex act. Later, during an excited or angered moment, Paps literally pins Jonah down by getting on top of him, nose-to-nose, almost as if he could kiss him.
Zagar uses animated drawings to give us some clue of Jonah’s inner world. Jonah has a scrapbook under his bed, which he scribbles his thoughts and sketches his feelings. It’s the equivalent of a diary but that shows off his artistic side. The animation is limited at first to expressions of horror and confusion. Yet, we’re supposed to be in shock when the drawings reveal hardcore homosexuality. The exposure of which is meant to be a source of shame. The point is that Jonah doesn’t give his family a chance to respond or react because he immediately retreats.
Unfortunately, Zagar does the same, so we’re left unsure of how Jonah’s family feels. They could be ashamed or angry or accepting. We never get to know. It’s less a disjointed aspect than an unanswered question. Another unanswered question is a strange scene involving Paps digging a grave. It’s not clear why Paps is digging it. It could be merely symbolic for how he feels his life is going or it could be practical. It’s most likely the former but it’s not clear and quite frankly doesn’t add that much, if anything at all.
Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, language and underage drug and alcohol use.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 34 mins.