It makes me sad knowing how few people will see We the Animals -- and how many fewer still will see it in a movie theatre. This is a rare thing, where it's not a big blockbuster or a huge Oscar-baiting prestige picture, but an independent release that still begs viewing on the big screen.
I try to imagine someone getting absorbed into this movie on a small screen, in someone's home, where a litany of distractions will pull the viewer out of its impeccably constructed world. First and foremost I must mention cinematographer Zak Mulligan, making unusually justified use of handheld cameras, and co-editors Keiko Deguchi and Brian A. Kates, together constructing a story that doesn't quite gel into a unified whole until a singular, heartbreaking moment near the end. But, I guess director and co-writer Jeremiah Zagar (adapting from the novel by Justin Torres) is still the boss of them all. This is his movie, and it is a singular vision.
I must admit, We the Animals hits unusually close to home for me. My upbringing was really nothing like this, but I did have an accidental revelation of my sexuality far sooner than I was ready for, very similar in nature to what happens to the youngest of the three brothers who are the focus of this story. I only wish I could have had a fraction of the defiance this kid ultimately has in the face of it.
Then again, this is fiction -- and increasingly stylized as the story unfolds. This is not a straightforward depiction of reality. This is art. And it is by turns charming, sad, and beautiful. Sometimes shocking. I did find myself wondering what could possibly become of ten-year-old Jonah (Evan Rosado), given his choices in the end. It left me feeling unsure of how to feel about his potential fate.
The same could be said of his brothers, all very close in age, although Manny is the youngest: there's also Joel (Josiah Gabriel) and Manny (Isaiah Kristian). They are such a tight-nit group of brothers that, to be honest, it's quite a ways into the movie before any particularly distinguishing characteristics come to light. They even all look alike, with identical haircuts. I'm not sure Joel and Jonah ever quite become more than interchangeable.
It seems for a very long time as though this is their story, a long succession of visual vignettes of their childhood, growing up poor with two parents who both work nights, a white woman (Sheila Vand) and a Puerto Rican man (Raúl Castillo). Nearly every scene is inside their home, or in the surrounding woods and streets. There's never even any indication that these kids go to school. When marital disturbance results in Dad leaving for some time, Mom descends into a depression for days, and the kids are left to fend for themselves.
Jonah has a sketch book he keeps hidden under the bed he shares with his brothers. He gets up every night after they have fallen asleep, and creates wonderful scribbled humanoid and insect-like images, which are consistently animated with an affecting melancholy throughout We the Animals. There's more than initially indicated inside this sketch book, something which draws a line in more ways than one. It is the catalyst for Jonah's relationship with everyone in his family being forever changed.
A whole lot of We the Animals unfolds in a semi-dreamlike state, fractured snippets of scenes like those recalled in inevitably fractured memories. The way it all gets tied together is its greatest achievement. It seems, for a long while, to be simply a portrait of a brief period of time in three people's childhoods. But there is a clear story arc through it all, no frame of it wasted on the way there, just waiting to be revealed.
That is why it works best in a movie theatre, an environment designed to get lost in the world being constructed and presented. It's a unique experience that can't be replicated anywhere else.