I did not know We the Animals was based on a book until after the film, which is always a sign that an adaptation did what it needed to do. Jeremiah Zagar’s vision offers a wealth of sensitivity and imagination to this coming-of-age tale of three rambunctious boys of Puerto Rican descent. At least, we begin the film believing it will be about all three. Very quietly, the perspective is trained more and more on the youngest, Jonah, who is played wonderfully by Evan Rosado. He is not as loud as his brothers, and there is some evidence to suggest that he is his mother’s favourite. He is also the most artistic, though what he draws, he draws in secret. The reason is revealed later, and the potency of the reveal further confirms how well Zagar is able to develop the small intimacies of his work without giving too much away all at once. It is not just about the carefree nature of childhood. We come to see there is so much more at play: the frayed edges of parental love mired in abuse and misogyny; the way toxic environments automatically condition and distort our present and future relationships; how depression immobilizes to the point of neglect; and the ever-present uncertainties that come with sexual discovery. When you grow up, the world can change from glowing wondrousness to an aching wound as betrayals and disappointments continually line up, and We the Animals understands that very, very well.
I’m prevented from loving this more than I do because some of the more obvious symbolism and motifs calcify the proceedings. Scenes of water and flight reappear often, though the first appearances happen to be the most effective. The repetitions end up feeling less valuable. Other times, important symbols or scenes are explained away too quickly, preventing deeper engagements with their thematic possibilities. One example is the mysterious hole the father digs in the backyard. The kids all theorize about its purpose, before Jonah tells us that it’s really his grave. Leaving its existence a true mystery would have opened up different avenues of interpretation, which is always something you’d want to see in a strong film. Zagar ends up being better suited to using idiosyncratic editing and percussive rhythms to get inside Jonah’s singular perspective. It’s both cinematically satisfying and sensible to the character work being done. I would have rather had more of that than the more heavy-handed methods he employs.
Rarely is a debut a filmmaker’s grandest achievement, so I won’t worry about these minor flaws. Zagar demonstrates a good command of style already, which I’m sure he will continue to improve upon with each successive feature. We the Animals is the promising start he was looking for. I think he has a lot to be proud of. Everyone involved in this production does.