Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Review: "We the Animals"

Lyrical and evocative, “We the Animals” is a snapshot of childhood at the eye level of the kids going through it -- the simple joys, the incomprehensible tragedies, the mix of yearning and apprehension about growing up.

Much like “The Florida Project” from last year, this film keeps the focus squarely on the kids. In this case, it’s three brothers who are ages 10, 11 and 12. The youngest is Jonah (Evan Rosado), who’s the dreamer and the drawer of the group, and the clear stand-in for author Justin Torres, upon whose book director Jeremiah Zagar and his co-screenwriter, Dan Kitrosser, have based the film.

Zagar comes from a documentary background, and you can clearly see the influence in how his camera follows his subjects in an unobtrusive way. Set in the late 1970s or early ‘80s, it’s the story of a family from Puerto Rico that has settled somewhere in rural America.

The father, Paps (Raúl Castillo), works as the night watchman at a factory, while the Ma (Sheila Vand) is a worker on the third shift at yet another industrial site. This largely leaves the trio of brothers free during the daytime to roam the gorgeous countryside around their house, explore, tease and get into minor scrapes.

There’s not a whole lot of story or dialogue in “We the Animals.” Often several minutes will go by between spoken words. Rather, it’s the imagery and the music (by Nick Zammuto) that carry the cinematic experience.

Like a leaf falling into a river, we ride along with the boys’ story and get caught up in its eddies and currents.

Ma and Paps are outwardly loving but also get into arguments that sometimes turn violent. As the story opens, he leaves the family for a time after striking Ma. He tells the boys the dentist punched her to loosen up her wisdom teeth for extraction. The brothers are respectful enough of their father to accept this without believing it for even a minute.

(He never once raises his hand to them.)

Embarrassed by her bruises and emotionally wrecked, Ma stays in bed for days on end. Jonah and his brothers Manny (Isaiah Kristian) and Joel (Josiah Gabriel) essentially become feral children, emptying out the kitchen of food before turning to shoplifting or purloining from a vegetable patch to fill their scant bellies.

Jonah wakes up in the wee hours to add to his rambling journal -- a collection of writings, drawings and other scribbles. He keeps these hidden from his brothers and parents, for reasons that remain unclear but are also completely understandable. Part of it is fear of having his innermost thoughts exposed, especially those related to changing bodies and sex.

But mostly, I think Jonah just wants to have a little piece of himself he can keep to himself.

These drawings are brought to life in animations that serve as the connective tissue of the movie, binding scenes and themes through wordless moving imagery.

At first the brothers are inseparable, but as time passes and troubles mount, Jonah finds himself as the one who stands apart. He’s estranged from his brothers’ desire to grow up as quickly as possible. He loves his mother and wants to protect her, understands his father’s anger without condoning it.

“We the Animals” is a lovely film about human ugliness and beauty, a coming-of-age story that tells how we can’t stay children forever, no matter how much we’d like to cling to that innocence.

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