THE STORY – Manny, Joel, and Jonah tear their way through childhood. Their mother and father have a volatile relationship that makes and unmakes the family many times over, often leaving the boys fending for themselves. As their parents rip at one another, Manny and Joel harden and grow into versions of their father. With the triumvirate fractured, Jonah, who is the youngest, becomes increasingly aware of his desperate need to escape. Driven to the edge, Jonah embraces an imagined world all his own.
THE CAST – Evan Rosado, Raúl Castillo, Sheila Vand, Isaiah Kristian & Josiah Gabriel
THE TEAM – Jeremiah Zagar (Director/Writer) & Dan Kitrosser (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 92 Minutes
By Matt Neglia
What an extraordinary vision! In the hands of director/writer Jeremiah Zagar, the adaptation of the novel “We The Animals” (by Justin Torres) for the screen is a spellbinding cinematic triumph of art and storytelling. On the surface, the story of three young brothers growing up in a dysfunctional household might not sound all that compelling. Take the best parts of “The Florida Project,” mix them with “Moonlight” and add in a splash of “The Tree Of Life” and you have Zagar’s living, breathing film that does everything it can to make itself feel singular. This blend between realism and fantasy is what gives “We The Animals” its own unique identity and its beating heart, making for one of the best independent films of the year and one of the best coming of age dramas in recent memory.
Set in the 90’s in upstate New York, “We The Animals” tells the story of three brothers of white and Puerto Rican descent from their two parents (Played by Raúl Castillo and Sheila Vand). The three siblings are young, carefree and wild as they make the world around them their playground. However, their parent’s unstable relationship suffers its ups and downs leading to its own effects on the brothers. The youngest son, Jonah (Evan Rosado), keeps his daily experiences and thoughts logged in a journal through a series of drawings. As his brothers begin to grow into versions of their father, Jonah’s imagination starts to take over and he begins to embrace the world differently, leading him to discover more about his identity through his early thoughts about homosexuality.
Jeremiah Zagar’s imagination knows no limits in “We The Animals.” Shot on 16mm film stock to invoke the memory of the time period which the movie is set in, “We The Animals” has a grainy, brightly lit and overexposed image that feels hypnotic and plays wonderfully into the mindset of a young child who is still too small to understand the bigger world around him. The film also has moments of animation edited in with precision and an immersive soundscape, backed by a lively musical score. All of these filmmaking elements help to give the film a pulse when so many other independent productions are trying to keep the qualities which make cinema magical to a bare minimum.
There is an intimacy which is felt in every scene of “We The Animals” and that is in part aided by the performances from the mostly unknown cast of actors, the biggest of whom is Raúl Castillo who people may recognize from HBO’s “Looking” and this year’s “Unsane.” Castillo is gripping as the struggling patriarch who is not perfect and doing the best that he can to provide for his family. He’s matched by Sheila Vand who is equal parts elegant and battered by her emotionally destructive marriage. However, it is their children who we follow throughout most of the film, primarily newcomer Evan Rosado, as the young boy who is experiencing his first gay impulses early on in his life. The camaraderie which the three brothers share both at their happiest when their parent’s marriage is at its fullest and at their most wild when their parent’s marriage is at its worst is invariably acted with honesty and empathy.
While “We The Animals” may not win any awards for its story, the storytelling itself by Jeremiah Zagar is second to none. Borrowing from the best and adding his own individual take on the material, Zagar gives “We The Animals” the very best that the filmmaking medium has to offer in an effort to create something unforgettable. The character Jonah experiences the world through different eyes than his siblings and at the end of the film, that world feels full of possibilities for this young and curious soul. After spending years making shorts and documentaries, writer/director Jeremiah Zagar’s feature-length narrative debut puts him in a similar spot now where hopefully his creativity and talent will be allowed to flourish and thus give us other transcendent cinematic gems.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Jeremiah Zagar utilizes many different filmmaking techniques to make his narrative feature debut as lively as possible. Truthful performances aided by nuanced realism.
THE BAD – The actual story itself might be considered tame and uninteresting to some.