We The Animals

***1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

We The Animals
"The story, such as it is, has the dreamy flow of childhood remembered, but though the honeyed tones of the magic hour are often used, there's never a glossing over the toughness of life being faced by these free-range kids." | Photo: Zak Mulligan

The struggle is real in this feature debut Jeremiah Zagar, who proved to be one of several distinctive new voices in Sundance's Next section this year, taking home its top prize. It's an area of the festival's programming that is, despite continuing to be ill-defined, is arguably, throwing up more consistently interesting films these days than the main competition itself.

Shot on 16mm, the film has an easy-on-the-eye, dappled glow, well-suited to the idea of looking back in time, as Zagar and Daniel Kitrosser adapt Justin Torres' novel about growing up in a working-class family in upstate New York. The story is told from the point of view of Jonah (Evan Rosado), who forms a unit with his two brothers Joel and Manny. Often tangled together on the bed they share, Jonah is, right from the outset, starting to pull away from the other pair, enjoying a secret that's all his own, a diary full of illustrations that is under the bed.

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He writes in it at night, once his brothers are asleep, an outlet for feverish outpourings of emotion that he could never share with them or his Ma (Sheila Vand) and Paps (Raúl Castillo). Theirs is a household where emotions rule, sometimes to the family's detriment - and they also dominate Zagar's film, which never follows more than the loosest of narratives. Fluid camerawork from Zak Mulligan, interspersed with elements from Jonah's diary animated by Mark Samsonovich and magic realist imaginings, immerse us both in the boy's mindset and family life. We feel the uplifting joy of the kids as their father instructs them to "shake it like you're rich", but that is matched by the outright panic experienced by Jonah later in the film when a swimming lesson goes awry. The production design by Katie Hickman is also worthy of note, evocative of the family's social status, right down to the non-matching bed clothes. Zagar, who has a documentary background, proves adept at working with his young, non-professional stars, garnering naturalistic performances that perfectly suit the film's mood.

The story, such as it is, has the dreamy flow of childhood remembered, but though the honeyed tones of the magic hour are often used, there's never a glossing over the toughness of life being faced by these free-range kids, who are frequently left to fend for themselves. And if the narrative looseness threatens to fully drift apart in places - not least when it comes to Jonah's semi-sexualised encounters with an older youth - its emotional core remains strong. Best of all, Zagar proves himself a director who is willing to take a risk to tell his stories - an instinct that bodes well for his future.

Reviewed on: 25 Apr 2018
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Manny, Joel and Jonah tear their way through childhood and push against the volatile love of their parents as Jonah embraces a world of imagination.

Director: Jeremiah Zagar

Writer: Daniel Kitrosser, Jeremiah Zagar, based on the book by Justin Torres

Starring: Raúl Castillo, Sheila Vand, Evan Rosado, Isaiah Kristian, Josiah Santiago

Year: 2018

Runtime: 94 minutes

Country: US


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