Director Jeremiah Zagar’s fluid dreamscape of a movie, “We the Animals,” captures the joys and pains of growing up better than anything since Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” — as it preserves the moment when a boy realizes he’s different than his parents and siblings.
When we first meet Jonah (Evan Rosado), Manny (Isaiah Kristian) and Joel (Josiah Gabriel), they seem like a single entity, playing shirtless in the summer woods near their home in upstate New York. (The era is undefined, though Justin Torres’ semi-autobiographical novel on which the movie is based was set in the 1980s.) The boys — ranging in age from 9 to 11 — do nearly everything together, from crossing railroad trestles to getting under a quilt with a flashlight for the “body heat” game.
The boys also watch their parents, a Puerto Rican dad (Raúl Castillo) and a white mom (Sheila Vand) from Brooklyn, whose relationship is stormy. Ma and Paps — who married as teens when Ma got pregnant with Manny — both work crappy night jobs, and sleep through the mornings. When they’re both awake, they often argue and shout. Sometimes Paps hits Ma, and then disappears for days at a time, leaving Ma a crying heap on the couch, leaving the boys to fend for themselves.
The story, sensitively adapted from Torres’ book by Zagar and Daniel Kitrosser, is seen through Jonah’s eyes, and through them we gradually see how Jonah is different than his brothers. He’s the youngest, and he can’t swim like his brothers can, which becomes the source of one of Ma and Paps’ biggest fights.
When Manny and Joel are asleep, Jonah crawls under his bed and draws in his journal. The drawings reflect the boys’ summertime play, but also the domestic violence he witnesses. When the boys meet a teen living with his grandfather on the neighboring farm, and the teen shows them his VHS porn collection, Jonah starts incorporating sexual figures in his drawings.
Eventually, all these elements of Jonah’s life must come together at a point of conflict, a centralized conflict. But the destination is less important than the journey in “We the Animals.” The movie relishes those little moments and shifting moods in Jonah’s day-to-day existence, as the violence he sees from his parents passing down to his older brothers.
Zagar made his 2014 Sundance Film Festival debut with the media-analysis documentary “Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart.” So it’s a happy surprise that a documentarian tells Jonah’s story with such beautifully dreamlike, impressionistic images. He also draws strong performances from his adult leads — Vand is the movie’s one recognizable face, from her role in “Argo” or the title role in the vampire romance “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” — as they depict a marriage in free fall.
But “We the Animals” is dominated by the boys, Kristian, Gabriel and especially Rosado, a movie first-timer who brings a wide-eyed innocence and depth of feeling to Jonah’s search for identity. When he begins to find it, in the movie’s shattering conclusion, it’s Rosado’s expressive eyes that tell us that nothing will be the same again.
‘We the Animals’
Opened August 17 in select cities; opens Friday, Sept. 7, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City). Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, language and some underage drug and alcohol use. Running time: 93 minutes.