Friday Film Review - “We the Animals”

Sep 21, 2018

Winner of the NEXT Innovator Award at 2018 Sundance Film Festival, “We the Animals” has recently made its theatrical debut.

“We the Animals” is a coming-of-age story following 10-year-old Jonah, the youngest of three mixed-race brothers growing up in poverty and isolation in rural upstate New York.

In a poignant, first-time performance, 9-year-old actor Evan Rosado grounds the film with his portrayal of Jonah.

Jonah’s parents – his father (played by Raúl Castillo) is Puerto-Rican, and his mother (played Sheila Vand) is white. They met and married as teens in Brooklyn. Looking for a better economic opportunity and environment in which to to raise their three sons, the family moved upstate. However, life as outsiders in their remote community, coupled with their parent’s increasingly violent relationship, gives rise to a dysfunctional childhood for the close-knit trio of boys.

Jonah and his older brothers - Manny (played by Isaiah Kristian) and Joel (played Josiah Gabriel) - survive by running in a pack. When their father leaves for weeks at a time, and their mother isolates herself to sleep away her recurring depression, the three brothers fend for themselves by raiding a neighbor’s farm for food, shoplifting from the corner store, and huddling together under the sheets until they fall asleep at night.

Jonah escapes his volatile reality by sneaking away to a retreat he’s created under the bed he shares with his brothers to sketch his private thoughts in a notebook while the others sleep.

Filmmaker Jeremiah Zagar peppers Jonah’s retreats throughout the film and creatively animates Jonah’s drawings, which are hand-drawn by illustrator Mark Samsonovich - to give viewers an intimate look at Jonah’s innermost struggles. The use of these animated vignettes are a power alternative to on-screen dialogue to tell Jonah’s story.

The film succeeds in capturing the fleeting childhood adventures of the three brothers, and Jonah’s sad, but wide-eyed innocence set among his harsh day-to-day reality.

“We the Animals” is the first narrative film by Zagar, who’s prior Sundance feature was the 2014 documentary “Captivated:The Trials of Pamela Smart”.

The film is adapted from Justin Torres’ 2011 debut and semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, and features a relatively unknown, but solid cast.

Rated R (for strong sexual content, nudity, language and some underage drug and alcohol use) and running  92 minutes, “We the Animals” is a touching portrait of a troubled childhood that’s definitely a film worth watching,

The KPCW Friday Film Review is sponsored by the Park City Film Series.