The narrative of a person’s life often doesn’t become clear until he or she has lived most of it. Rather than a journey with direction or purpose, childhood feels more impressionistic. A blur of potent emotion and events that lack the guiding context of adulthood, adolescence makes up with raw experience what it lacks in cool rationale.
Jeremiah Zagar’s We the Animals embraces that spirit, following the lives of three brothers through a succession of dream-like vignettes. Manny (Isaiah Kristian), Joel (Josiah Gabriel), and Jonah (Evan Rosado) grow up learning to cope with a household alternately loving and volatile. Their mother (Sheila Vand) and father (Raúl Castillo) met as teenagers, later becoming young parents. Sometimes this brings them closer to their sons’ sense of whimsy: morning dance lessons, outdoor romps, and rides in the bed of a pickup truck bring smiles and laughter. But Paps has a nasty streak, making snide remarks to his wife and “teaching” one of the boys to swim by letting go of him in the middle of a lake. Ma berates him only to welcome him back into the house, caught in an all-too-familiar cycle.
The three young performers playing each of the brothers, all first-time actors, make an impressive showing. Their camaraderie, which slowly fractures as two of the boys begin taking after their father while Jonah favors his mother, feels organic, as if they really were growing up together. Beyond boyhood antics, they watch the arguments and reconciliations of Ma and Paps with grave understanding, even when they’re unable to articulate the full effect on their family.
Vand and Castillo also quietly impress as the volatile parents. Although the development of their marriage is limited by what the boys witness, they still manage to convey a heady mixture of teenage lust and buyer’s remorse that brings out the fire in both characters.
As Joel drifts farther away from his siblings and deeper into the shelter of his imagination, We the Animals takes turn towards the surreal. Emotional high points are also emphasized by drawings from Joel’s journal, brought to life in stark, and sometimes violent, fashion. Their use throughout the film hints at the more fantastical moments to come, easing viewers into the world of possibility inhabited by children.
The final result is a hypnotic examination of poverty and abuse, and the power of familial love to either exacerbate or alleviate those pains. Languid pacing and a virtually non-existent plot will likely deter viewers who prefer a more straightforward approach to their storytelling. But, much like last year’s Oscar-winner Moonlight, We the Animals takes an unflinching look at a marginalized child struggling with identity, family, and belonging. Although it lacks the former’s polish and direction, the ambition of its focus deserves an equally engaged audience.