Stories of brotherhood and masculinity are not hard to find in cinema, but ones that specifically focus on boys of colour in a tender way are rare to find. Part Moonlight part David Gordon Green’s George Washington (which both focus on young black boys), Jeremiah Zagar’s first fiction feature, We the Animals, based on the novel by Justin Torres, is an intimate and touching examination of the youth of three mixed-race brothers, and the tumultuous family life that they endure.
Following their movements at child-height with an almost documentary style throughout, Zagar’s camera weaves itself through the lives of Manny (Isaiah Kristian), Joel (Josiah Gabriel) and Jonah (Evan Rosado), a tight-knit unit of siblings that move as one. Rampaging through their world in lush, green, upstate New York the space that they occupy seems never ending, a huge playground full of possibilities with a never-ending horizon of trees. They play in the woods and scurry through neighbours gardens but it’s never long before they are back at home with Ma (Sheila Vand) and Pa (Raúl Castillo). Their working class upbringing is oftentimes difficult, with the boys sometimes sleeping on the floor at Pa’s work when Ma isn’t at home. Though through this struggle Pa aims to teach the boys to be proud of their Puerto Rican heritage, how to be tough men, how to dance like Puerto Rican men, how to love like Puerto Rican men.
Due to Pa’s influence the boys are rarely seen with shirts on, accessorised with only a single gold chain around each of their necks. The importance placed on ideas of masculinity is clear within the household, and the toxicity of that masculinity becomes apparent when Pa leaves, leaving Ma with a nasty mark on her face supposedly ‘from the dentist’ and a fresh bout of depression beckoning her.
Most of the film unfolds through the eyes of the youngest brother Jonah, who still sees magic within the world but can’t help but become confused and distressed by the events unfolding, mindlessly following his brothers as they slowly morph into miniature versions of their father- who eventually returns to the home with an attitude that clearly shows this is a regular occurrence. Jonah combats these feelings by scribbling in his hidden journal, sketchy line drawings of basic shapes and figures that represent the anger and hurt he bears inside, these drawings are throughout the film rendered into 2D animations inter-cut with the boys fleeting escapades.
Jonah’s drawings do communicate a child’s need to express themselves through mediums other than words but these moments sometimes feel quite forced or unimportant, his fantasies do on occasion end up merging into his reality, giving the film moments of magical realism that work to a much better effect. Magic seems scattered throughout the vignettes of family life, cinematographer Zak Mulligan’s grainy 16mm camera feels intimate and heartening as it focuses on facial close-ups and still moments of beauty like light falling through a curtain, like the best moments of a Terrence Malick film. The visual style bounces off the incredible work Zagar has done with the trio of boys, conjuring sensitive and nuanced performances from largely first-timers.
Zagar’s story-telling has moments of magical realism undercut with its more disturbing scenes of boys foraging for food and caring for their depressed mother, all while grappling with cultivating their own sense of self. We the Animals is a compassionate set of snapshots of just one experience of masculinity and brotherhood, a fleeting moment of both beauty and pain that treats its meek subjects as kings, honouring their world-view and moving at their pace.
Dir: Jeremiah Zagar
Scr: Jeremiah Zagar, Justin Torres, Daniel Kitrosser
Cast: Sheila Vand, Raúl Castillo, Isaiah Kristian, Josiah Gabriel, Evan Rosado
Prd: Philipp Engelhorn, Michael Raisler, Andrew Goldman, Christina D. King, Paul Mezey, Jeremy Yaches
DOP: Zak Mulligan
Music: Nick Zammuto
Run time: 94 minutes
We The Animals is in cinemas on June 14th