In We the Animals, a struggling father (Raúl Castillo) comes to the sobering and depressing realization that he and his family are trapped—that their lives are never going to get better. His wife (Sheila Vand) knows it too but doesn’t want to admit it, hoping that love can still hold them together. Their three kids don’t understand it yet, too engrossed in their poor lives to take note of the fights behind closed doors or the dark and confusing road down which they’re headed. But somewhere within the void of their lives, with an empty fridge and absent parents, the boys will have the time to contemplate their bitter and awkward emotions, playful and angry.
The coming-of-age story is told from the perspective of Jonah (Evan Rosado), one of three brothers. He joins in with all their brotherly activities: running in the woods, playing in bed, stealing from the convenience store, and hanging out with the local bad boy who lets them partake in beer and porno. But unknown to the rest of his family, Jonah has been drawing pictures, windows into his violent and sexual imagination. Through scribbled animated sequences, we start to understand a little bit of Jonah’s chaotic mind, trapped inside his life of squalor and bound by his family to a life without openness. He can’t be frank with anyone, be it his absently concerned parents or his tribal brothers who attack weakness.
All he can do is lash out at a world he doesn’t understand. His family can be intimate at times, as in a close moment when mom and dad are making out and the kids keep jumping all over them. It’s playful until Jonah’s anger slips out, unleashing a violent storm of fists on his dad, asking why he left. Feelings surface that Jonah doesn’t expect, as when the local big kid shows him pornography and new and private urges form in his imagination. He denies them. What good will it do tell anyone? These thoughts are hidden in drawings, pooling in his mind until they come out in a confused, animalistic rage.
While the family proceeds through a series of failures, violence, and apologies, there’s time to contemplate in the rare quiet moments of Jonah’s life. When his brothers are not horsing around or shoplifting food and his parents are in their own worlds, Jonah escapes into his own dreams. He has visions of himself being something else, somewhere else. He lies in the dirt and imagines being sucked into the mud, surrounded by bugs, then rising into the sky. With the less fantastical scenes, there are close-ups and highlighted sounds of Jonah’s everyday life—the scratching of pencils, rhythmic tapping, chest beating, brotherly snickering. It’s a most precise and intimate portrayal of a kid’s life within a dirty atmosphere, revealing all warts, including the ones that are best hidden away.
The film is based on a novel by Justin Torres, a light read told in short segments. Director Jeremiah Zagar keeps this same method of loose storytelling, weaving a detailed atmosphere that feels true to the wandering and complicated minds of kids that don’t quite comprehend all that lies before them. Credit is due to cinematographer Zak Mulligan for lingering on every nook of Jonah’s life, from every muddy outdoor session to the dirty and empty kitchen where the boys scrounge for food.
We the Animals is the type of film that lingers in the mind long after for a handful of scenes that proceed with ease while the underlying drama boils. Even after a few weeks, I can still recall the boys looking up in the back of a pickup truck, the chucking of rocks to relieve boredom, and the more imaginative scenes of Jonah dreaming he’s underwater. It’s this direction that always keeps the film engrossing, never favoring to make the drama so blunt and sentimental. We delve deep and take it all in so that by the time Jonah screams and thrashes at his father, we know it’s far more than youthful rebellion.