In 2018, the film adaptation of Justin Torres’ semi-autobiographical novel We the Animals premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where it also won the Next Innovator Award. Following a dysfunctional and emotionally fraught mixed-race family living in upstate New York, the drama marked the directorial debut of Jeremiah Zagar.
The narrative revolves around the youngest brother Jonah (Evan Rosado), who secretly expresses himself through almost visceral pencil drawings. Providing the eyes and ears of his parents’ dysfunctional marriage, his unbiased innocence exposes the toxicity of their behaviour not only towards each other but to him and his siblings.
Through their intimate conversations, the boys exist in this imaginary bubble that restricts their interactions with other people so their perception of what is considered normal is limited. They also witness and seemingly accept the hardships of their parents, knowing full well that there is nothing they can do.
We the Animals review: Minimalist screenplay, mesmerising performances
Zagar’s grainy visuals capture the low-key atmosphere of their rundown home, which provides a visual reminder of his parents’ respective struggles. With Sheila Vand delivering a sensitive performance, Ma dreams of a better life but is ultimately tied to Manny (Raúl Castillo), whose short temper and impulsive nature exacerbates the tension between them, which leads to a number of unsurprising though shocking scenes.
Zagar and Dan Kitrosser’s minimalist screenplay enables the former to concentrate on the narrative. Thanks to Torres’ hands-on involvement in the production, in representing a visual coming-of-age journey with a mesmerising Rosado driving the film. In addition to Jonah’s family issues, the plot focuses on the uncertainty behind his sexuality, which is awakened through his bonding sessions with the blond, blue-eyed Dustin. As a result, he begins to disassociate from his family to an almost startling effect while his older brothers start to replicate the same rebellious attitude of their father.
Overall, We the Animals is an unrestrained, evocative journey that offers a different outlook on the coming-of-age genre, thanks to Rosado’s wonderfully down-to-earth performance.