Over the past few years, there has been a boom in independent productions that have taken on the slice of life concept in film. This has especially been true in coming of age stories focused on children. Films from “Moonlight,” to “The Florida Project” are two of the most successful. Others, like “The Fits” have become darlings for cinephiles. The new feature, “We the Animals” is almost a combination of the three features. Director Jeremiah Zagar delivers a brilliant film that feels like the perfect double feature too any of those films. Part coming of age tale, part sexual exploration, and part magical realism. The result is an impressively subtle film that is both heartbreaking and brilliant to watch unfold.
“We the Animals” focused on a young boy named Jonah (Evan Rosado). Jonah and his two brothers, Manny (Isaiah Kristian) and Joel (Josiah Gabriel), do everything together. They have their own rituals, games, and entertainment amongst themselves. The three are incredibly close, even when they push each other. Their parents, Paps (Raúl Castillo) and Ma (Sheila Vand) are struggling to keep their marriage and life together. They are both frustrated by life and held in their place by poverty. Ma consistently considers leaving Paps, but the two are drawn to one another. Meanwhile, Jonah works through issues of isolation and borderline abandonment. He wants to belong, especially within this family. Yet as he begins to understand his sexuality and his relationship to his family, he begins to take on more of an outsider’s perspective towards his own family.
Many of the themes that “We the Animals” has to juggle are difficult in the best of circumstances. However, there’s not a true storyline to follow here, and the fluid story shows us a day in the life of boys are at once naive, yet know much more about life then they let on. The film is able to pull off the meandering tone through a dreamlike aesthetic and feel. There is emotion-charged through each image on the screen, while simultaneously feeling like a foggy memory of events passed. Time passes, yet the boys remain the same age. The effect is a film that is ground in a moment in someone’s life, yet if you told me it takes place over a decade, it’s easily believable.
There are many stars on display in this film. This begins with Rosado, who fills in the role extremely well. The young man’s face is full of wide-eyed hope as he serves as our perspective. His optimism is beautiful, which makes it all the more heartbreaking when it goes unrewarded. Castillo and Vand both sell their roles, which makes you love them and hate them at the same time. Castillo is the true breakout, towering above the rest. He breathes a compassion into the character that makes you forget his sins, of which there are many. Vand is sweet and compassionate towards her children in some moments, but also seems to resent them for trapping her in this relationship. When she breaks down, it is hard to not feel for her. All are very skilled performers, and the film showcases their ability to capture an audience.
The choice to shoot in 16mm pays off for the film, and DP Zac Mulligan is able to capture some of the most brilliant shots of the year. The way in which he shoots the boys huddled together or walking through the woods makes them appear as a single creature at times. There’s a scene in the film that serves as the antithesis of Mahershala Ali‘s swimming lesson in “Moonlight.” The darkness of the unknown and surrounding water that surrounds Jonah is both scary and visceral. The home video feels to the film is rewarded, when a character picks up a camera to move around the bed of a pickup truck. The cinematography is gorgeous, and will undeniably have some of the shots of the year.
Finally, this doesn’t quite come together without Zagar’s influence over the film. As a co-writer with Daniel Kitrosser, he is able to spin the aesthetic to match what is on the page. They take real chances, subbing in animation to help clue the audience in on the words Jonah is unable to say out loud. Zagar fuses sound design and score at times, blending together the sounds of drawing into the score of the film. He sets up scenes as wish fulfillment, only to pull the rug out from under the audience in some of these moments. All these elements are special, and each comes together through Zagar’s direction. The kindness and compassion that Zagar feels for these characters is apparent. It’s emotional filmmaking from the word go. Without Zagar’s total control it is hard to imagine the film would be as complete.
“We the Animals” is undeniably beautiful as a bildungsroman and will likely be a critical favorite in the same vein as “The Fits.” While no single element of the film is out of this world, together the film is an intimate portrayal of one boy’s life. This is a special film that should make a play on some Top 10s. It will likely not make an Oscar push (though it may pick up some critics support) but should be considered a must-see for cinephiles in 2018.