Directed by: Jeremiah Zagar
Premise: Three brothers (Evan Rosado, Josiah Gabriel, and Isaiah Kristian) live in poverty with their mother and their abusive father (Sheila Vand and Raúl Castillo). The boys live a feral existence while the youngest of them yearns to escape his circumstances.
What Works: We the Animals is an intimate story of life on the margins. The whole cast is only about half a dozen people and most of the action involves ten-year-old Jonah and his brothers Manny and Joel. The boys aren’t well supervised nor do they have much to fill their days and the three brothers run wild through their rural town, exploring the woods and occasionally engaging in petty crimes like shoplifting and vandalism. We the Animals is well shot. It alternates handheld, naturalistic sequences with highly stylized interludes. The naturalistic moments, which constitute much of the movie, are raw and feel authentic. Light and shadow are used for dramatic effect and the movie is occasionally animated as it visualizes the drawings in Jonah’s notebook. Scenes are staged and shot from the boy’s point of view and We the Animals uses the camera to reveal how they see the world. The performances are terrific, especially by child actors Evan Rosado, Josiah Gabriel, and Isaiah Kristian. The actors and filmmakers show good judgement for how to portray these boys. They feel authentically of their age and place; the boys are not precocious but the filmmakers do not underestimate their intelligence either. Sheila Vand and Raúl Castillo are also impressive as the parents. The father is abusive toward their mother but we get a sense of why they remain together in a way that is credible. The home life alternates moments of violence with warm domestic scenes. That tension creates a complicated portrait of a family in difficult circumstances. We the Animals is also edgy in the way it portrays sexuality. This is not an exploitative film but We the Animals puts its young characters in situations that Hollywood films never would. This film is uncomfortable to watch at times but those moments are justified by the filmmakers’ purposefulness and authenticity.
What Doesn’t: Jonah is the protagonist of We the Animals. While his mother and father each have distinct characterizations, the brothers don’t get the same regard. Joel and Manny are mostly interchangeable characters. They don’t have defining qualities or dreams and desires of their own the way Jonah does. The idea is that Joel and Manny are unable to think outside of their circumstances and therefore will become their father. But the filmmakers miss opportunities to explore who they are and define Jonah in contrast to his brothers. The siblings’ lack of characterization also undermines the conflict in Jonah’s desire to break away from his family.
DVD extras: None.
Bottom Line: We the Animals is a gritty portrait of rural life and the desire of a young man to escape his station. The film is vivid and authentic and its stylistic flourishes distinguish We the Animals from the average tale of poverty.
Episode: #739 (March 3, 2019)