In We the Animals, director Jeremiah Zagar sustains a tone of wounded nostalgia, fashioning a formalism that appears to exist simultaneously in the past and present. The film’s images tend to be soft and murky, though certain details poke through with sharp clarity, particularly the specifics of the bodies of the three brothers who occupy the narrative’s center. Compounding the notion of memory—of submersion into a subjective swamp of revelry and uncertainty—are obvious visual metaphors of flying and drowning, as the youngest and most sensitive of the brothers, Jonah (Evan Rosado), wrestles with his artistic talents as well as his unshaped queer identity.
The film’s coming-of-age plot is enriched with unusual details. Jonah and his older brothers (Josiah Gabriel and Isaiah Kristian), who’re barely differentiated and essentially suggest heteronormative prepubescent id, live with their Paps (Raúl Castillo) and Ma (Sheila Vand) in upstate New York. Paps is Puerto Rican and Ma is white, and the tension of this difference thrums beneath the relationship and is expressed in occasionally startling and funny fashions, such as when Paps instructs his children to dance like a Puerto Rican (sensually) and then to dance like a white person (robotically). This family lives an austere existence, intensified by Ma’s thankless job in a brewery assembly line and by Paps’s unstable employment. When Paps hits Ma, he tells the children that she has to go to the dentist to have work done—a hauntingly specific lie. And when he disappears for a while, Ma falls apart and refuses to leave her bed or feed the children, inspiring them to steal from gas stations and farms. At their most desperate, the brothers drink soy sauce.
Like Steven Soderbergh’s King of the Hill and Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, We the Animals understands a texture of child abuse that isn’t usually acknowledged by films: that children don’t always know they’re being abused, which leads to awful situations being embraced with an ironic gleefulness as a source of play. Correspondingly, Zagar stages a few of the film’s most disturbing scenes in a disconcertingly light and bouncy tonality, capturing the children’s limitations of perception, though Jonah sees and understands more than his brothers do. There’s a powerfully erotic moment in which Paps and Ma nearly have sex on their bathroom sink, despite knowing that their children are still in the tub behind them. Jonah sees their foreplay and is clearly turned on, as are the parents by their transgression, until Ma’s common sense intervenes. In this moment and a few others, We the Animals also captures raw and unhinged sexual energy in a sober, un-hysterical manner that recalls films like Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart.
Other textures linger in the mind, such as Jonah’s escape from his life to the floor under the bed he shares with his brothers, where he brings a light to fashion a kind of individual cocoon, drawing images that transfigure his loneliness into art. This cocoon rhymes with another: the blanket tent that Jonah used to share with his brothers in play. As his siblings grow older, they become coarser and reject Jonah, who longs for that communal tent. Even crueler, the boys remove Jonah’s portion of the bed, symbolically destroying his other refuge. Rosado plays these scenes with a nakedness that’s almost untenably heartbreaking. And he’s matched by the extraordinary Castillo, who evinces a distinctive and subtle awareness of Paps’s sensitive side, especially when the father is weeping in the back of his broken-down pick-up truck after losing a job as a watchman. Not long after this embarrassment, which the children witness, Paps says to Ma: “We’re never going to escape this.”
We the Animals captures this working-class hopelessness with remarkable acuity. The film’s sentimentality over Jonah and his blossoming creativity is less unusual and occasionally bogs the narrative down in wide-eyed clichés. But Zagar understands that such clichés exist for a reason: as a refuge from the sort of world which he paints here with such striking sociological precision. In this film, one sees Zagar’s roots as a documentarian, as his powers of observation eclipse his feel for expressionism and melodrama.