We the Animals – Film Review
by David Turpin
Dir: Jeremiah Zagar
Cast: Evan Rosando, Raúl Castillo, Sheila Vand
The narrative feature debut of co-writer/director Jeremiah Zagar, We the Animals is based on Justin Torres’s semi-autobiographical 2011 novel of the same name. ‘Based’, however, doesn’t convey how extraordinarily faithful Zagar has been to his source material – a fidelity that works both for and against his film. On the one hand, Torres’ novel – while slim – is extraordinarily affecting, and Zagar’s careful depiction of its events is often likewise. On the other, the translation of Torres’ material to film is so careful, and so exact, that one is left wondering where Zagar himself is in all of this, other than as its shepherd from one medium to another.
The film centers on Jonah (Evan Rosando), a young boy growing up with two boisterous older brothers (Isaiah Kristian and Josiah Gabriel) in 1980s upstate New York. The boys’ unnamed parents – Raúl Castillo and Sheila Vand – are teetering on the poverty line, the instability of their circumstances mirrored in the volatility of their relationship. The story proceeds through a series of vignettes, as the boys’ father comes and goes, their mother passes in and out of depressive episodes, and Jonah begins to experience the first inklings of both his homosexuality and his literary gift, both of which will eventually distance him from his brothers.
The film is impeccably acted by the entire cast, with Rosando and Castillo being the particular stand-outs. Vand is typically charismatic, but the relative interiority of much of the part necessarily places her in a peripheral role for many of the film’s most memorable episodes. The filmmaking is, in itself, difficult to fault. Zak Mulligan’s exquisitely grainy photography frequently captures a very specific sense of physical proximity and tactility; Keiko Deguchi and Brian A. Kates’ editing feels fluid and intuitive. Perhaps most strikingly, artist Mark Samsonovitch contributes colourful and inventive animated sequences – somewhat similar to Emily Hubley’s animated interludes for Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) – that take us into Jonah’s imaginative worldview, and help immeasurably with the film’s sensitive and sympathetic handling of the difficult subject of juvenile sexuality.
What’s missing, largely, is a specific point of view – in place of, or at least in synthesis with, Torres’ voice on the page. Perhaps Zagar’s adaptation will work better for audiences new to the material. As it stands, it occasionally feels like the material is simply being passed through the cookie-cutter of contemporary American Indie good taste – with all the Terrence Mallick-isms one might expect. Upside down point-of-view shots, fantasies of flight, and many, many feeling-the-wind-from-a-moving-vehicle sequences are all present and correct – as is the film’s only definitive bum note, a wildly over-directed voice-over in which Rosando’s hushed narration is interspersed with so many meaningful pauses that the meaning all but evaporates. Simultaneously, Nick Zammuto’s pervasive music occasionally evokes Decoder Ring’s memorable score for Cate Shortland’s Somersault (2004), but the ‘crescendo of tinkles’ effect feels less novel, and more televisual, at this point.
At times, We the Animals hews so closely to a certain set of aesthetic parameters that it risks feeling synthetic – like something grown in a Sundance Institute-sponsored lab, from the spliced DNA of Moonlight (2016) and The Florida Project (2017). This is probably unfair, though – and if not unfair, at least unappreciative. Zagar’s work is, more than anything else, a modestly scaled, humane and sincere American independent film, coming at a time when we get vanishingly few of those. It’s worth cherishing on those terms, even if one might like it to have more daring in laying claim to its own voice.