MOVIE REVIEW: We the Animals



Official selection of the 6th Chicago Critics Film Festival


Too many folks, regardless of privilege level, find children’s thoughts on matters of life random or thin on depth. Those expressed thoughts often get ignored as unformed, immature, or something momentary they’ll forget as they age. The phrase “they’re just kids” shouldn’t be the verbalization of a dismissal. Rather, it should be spoken as a moment of pause to reflect on what future positive or negative impact could come from the lifestyle choice being observed. We the Animals, the feature debut of short film director Jeremiah Zagar, lives for those errors and pauses.

LESSON #1: HOW KIDS CAN TURN OUT FROM BAD EXAMPLES — Ask any adult who came from a broken home about the experiences that formed their identities. They will tell you the mistakes stemming from ignored concerns and the impact from poor parental choices. They will you about economic challenges, social fears, and emotional peaks and valleys. They will tell you how either hard or cathartic it was to watch their mother, the father, or both cry, and how much love was present in those situations.

This startling and accomplished independent film presents that kind of perilous plight. Based on Justin Torres’ novel, We the Animals is a passage of time during the 1980s for three boys raised by their volatile working class parents. Ma (Sheila Vand of Argo) and Paps (Unsane’s Raúl Castillo) are high school sweethearts who are on-again/off-again due to mercurial stresses and vices. When they have each other, life eeks through towards glimmers of contentment and commitment. When they’re apart, it molds to misery and harsh temperaments. Their children, Manny, Joel, and Jonah (played by Isaiah Christian, Josiah Gabriel, and Evan Rosado) are the human lenses for the lush cinematography of Zak Mulligan (I’m Not Me). Drifting naturalistically through shared misadventures woven around cramped living conditions, Mulligan’s camera follows the rambunctious boys as they create their own wobbly life cycle of prickly touchstones and tenuous connections.

LESSON #2: THE NEED FOR EXPERIENTIAL RELEASES — When hardships pile on over the years, the youngest, Rosado’s Jonah, takes it the worst. He detaches himself from reality and rushes towards the fulfillment of imagination. The film portrays those dark dalliances through interludes of animated sketches that show the boy’s interpretations of life happening around him. Outlets and escapes like these, even in expressive art form, are common and welcome.

Blistered with honesty and toughened by sensitivities, the acting performances are vivid and tragic. Vand and Castillo dive deep into the character imperfections that create these unprepared adults and caregivers. The largest revelations are the pre-teen trio, comprised of two first-timers (Christian and Rosado) and one (Gabriel) with just his third screen credit. The show remarkable poise and convincing strength. Gazing into their souls through their eyes and hearts will wrap thorns around your own.

High praise is due to Zafar and his writing partner Daniel Kitrosser for wading through the acid and muck of this heavy material for We the Animals. The animations by Mark Samsonovich and the touching musical score from Nick Zammuto reveal wondrous cognizance for the characters and their breaking points. The combined final piece from all involved stands as a painful dose of inspiration to be thankful for what you have. The empathy created from the troubling circumstances is remarkable even when it is harsh. The film is also a fascinating one where the whimsy artfully becomes sobering, an effect not often accomplished with such simplicity.