Documentarian Jeremiah Zagar has based his third feature film on Justin Torre’s novel, We the Animals. A novel which Zagar spotted and read entirely in the bookstore McNally Jackson on Prince Street in Soho, New York. Realising that he must make this into a film, Zagar brought long-time friend and playwright Dan Kitrosser for the screenplay.
We the Animals is a raw and honest look into Torre’s personal experiences growing up in upstate New York. Set in the 90s without the hazy nostalgia or obviously wardrobe, Zagar has created a mosaic coming of age narrative. Exploring a family made up of three boys, Manny (Isaiah Kristian) Joel (Josiah Gabriel) and the youngest Jonah (Evan Rosado) convincingly played by a trio of non-professional actors. A Puerto Rican Father, Pops (Raúl Castillo) and an Italian-Irish Ma (Sheila Vand, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night) make up the parents.
We the Animals concentrates on the ethereal and explosive energy within the family that is filled with both love and violence. Typically the violence is derived from Pops, whilst Ma nurtures the household, however it is not always one sided. As the boy’s journeys go on, you can see patterns in their behaviour that is impacting and breaking their brotherhood. It is also clear to Jonah his own identity and the journey he must take.
The energy and intimacy in We the Animals can be seen through director of photography Zak Mulligan. Mulligan having a similar interest to Zagar in cinéma vérité documentaries chose a more natural approach. Whilst adding stylised elements to the structure this is accentuated through the film’s use of animation where Jonah keeps a diary under the bed. The animated segments are introduced through musings, illustrations, and self-discoveries. Mulligan uses hand held camera work and wide-angle lenses allowing its viewers a greater understanding to these characters. As a viewer, being with the characters through the scenes and not directly watching them expresses the intimacy and authenticity you find in this film.
We the Animals is very much a collaborative piece. Executed through Torre’s experiences of growing up, in the hands of screenwriter Kitrosser and fulfilled through Zagar’s and Mulligan’s vérité aesthetic. Not to mention the sound performances by non-and professional actors.
Its fragmentation is often held together as a memoir where one can see similarities to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which is narrated by Jessica Chastain’s character Mrs. O’Brien an ethereal mother exploring the light and darks textures within the O’Brien household. Comparing We the Animals to The Tree of Life only highlights the film’s ambitious streak, but it is not quite ready to be on the same standard as Malick, which is fair.
We the Animals does get caught up in a dreamy and kinetic world through its use of animation and metaphors. This is a world, which strangely the narrative does not overstay its welcome, I kind of wished it did and continued to explore the tensions within the family and growing up, but instead it just floats by.
Drama | USA, 2018 | 15 | 14th June 2019 (UK) | Eureka Entertainment | Dir. Jeremiah Zagar | Raúl Castillo, Josiah Gabriel, Terry Holland, Evan Rosado, Shiela Vand