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We the Animals

We’ve got a tough one tonight, folks.

We the Animals was based on the novel of the same name, itself a semi-autobiographical account loosely based on the childhood of author Justin Torres. The premise is simple enough: Our protagonist is Jonah (Evan Rosado), the youngest of three brothers (the other two are Manny and Joel, respectively played by Isaiah Kristian and Josiah Gabriel). Our three pre-teens are biracial, the sons of a Puerto Rican father (played by Raul Castillo) and a white mother from Brooklyn (Sheila Vand).

This particular family is unmistakably blue-collar and they live in the boondocks of Upstate New York, but they get by. They are clearly a loving and happy family. Until Pops suddenly lashes out and hits his wife. It’s tempting to say that things go downhill from there, but it’s really more like a series of peaks and valleys.

As the movie unfolds, it becomes increasingly obvious that the two parents are stuck in an unhealthy relationship. Couple their tenuous marriage with their tenuous careers, and they simply cannot offer the stability that these children need. So things go wrong — somebody gets fired, somebody walks out, somebody gets into a shouting match, etc. — and the boys instinctively think that it’s because they did something wrong. It’s the parents who are fucked up, and it’s the kids who willingly accept the blame for it. Because nobody’s telling them otherwise, and dammit, these kids feel like they have to do something.

The movie is billed as a coming-of-age story, and there’s certainly some truth to that. A significant portion of the running time concerns Jonah’s gradual self-discovery and his dawning realization that his parents are only human. A pivotal event in the first act takes place on his tenth birthday. The “sexual awakening” subplot is portrayed in such graphic detail that it easily earns the R rating. Even so, the truth about this movie isn’t quite so simple.

Easily the most prominent main thrust of the story concerns all the shit going on around these kids and how it’s slowly affecting them. They see their parents in this abusive and dysfunctional relationship. They have to fend for themselves because Mom and Pops can’t put food on the table. They don’t seem to have any friends except each other. Even during the good times this family has together, there’s an underlying tension because nobody knows how or when it’ll all collapse and things will get ugly. And again, these boys blame themselves for everything that ever goes wrong. This is not a healthy environment for any child to grow up in, and one has to wonder what effects it could have on any kid growing up like this.

The filmmakers explore this in extraordinary depth, but in a subtle way. It’s vital and heartwarming to see how the boys react to all this insanity through unquestioning loyalty, unconditional support, and the kind of eternal optimism that can only be found in youth. The three brothers help each other to devise solutions to their problems, be it practical (helping each other steal food) or fantastical (role-playing conversations between their estranged parents). Only later do we begin to see how the boys’ pure hearts and die-hard loyalty to each other have been gradually chipped away by all the negative forces in their lives.

And Jonah is the one who holds on to his youthful innocence for the longest period of time, so he’s our protagonist. Otherwise, until the third act, the three brothers are so inseparable and so indistinguishable that there seemed precious little point in there being three of them. Although watching Manny and Joel slowly turn into assholes serves to make Jonah’s precarious virtue that much more visible.

It’s worth noting that one contrary person all alone is only an oddball, and one contrary person in a couple is only two people disagreeing. But one contrary person in a group of three is outnumbered. Thus the concept of an “outsider” is only possible in a group of three or greater, and so a group of three is ideal for examining the concept of “being different” in the most intimate and personal way. (see also: The Blue Man Group)

But then we get to the presentation, and this is where I’m going to have a hard time writing about this movie.

Everything about this movie is abstract in its design, with every detail finely tuned for the express purpose of conveying what Jonah is feeling in the moment. The camerawork is often reliant on super-tight closeups, which convey intimacy. The subject is often poorly framed, to imply a wandering and unfocused mindset. The camera is shaky as hell, with hyperkinetic editing, in moments of great energy. Yet there are also still shots that go for minutes without a cut, in those blessed moments when Jonah and his family get a peaceful break.

From the performances to the sound design to the visuals to the animation breaks, this movie uses anything and everything in whatever conceivable way to get us into the head of our protagonist. I won’t even get started on all the symbols and metaphors involved in so much potent imagery — I would need at least two or three more viewings to unpack it all.

The end result is a movie driven more by emotion than by plot. The filmmakers seem less concerned with how the various sequences affect each other, and more concerned with how the sequences affect our protagonist. An unfortunate side effect of this is a passive protagonist who barely seems to do anything until a couple of times in the third act. Additionally, the filmmakers are primarily interested in a ten-year-old boy’s abstract perception of what’s going on, rather than what’s actually going on. You’ll have to sift through all the daydream sequences to get a handle on what’s really going on, but all of that effort isn’t really worth it when the actual plot is so much less interesting than what’s going on in Jonah’s head.

We the Animals is a deeply moving film, but it’s definitely not for those who are looking for a conventional narrative. It’s truly impressive how the filmmakers were able to craft such an emotive and evocative film, but it’s also a very heavy film clearly not made to be a crowd-pleaser. There’s so much imagery and symbolism to dissect, but I don’t know if going through all this heartbreak two or three more times would be worth the reward.

I’m giving the movie a recommendation, if only because there’s no substitute for actually seeing the thing. If you want a masterclass in how to use cinema to evoke a certain emotional response from the audience, this is it.

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