Ah, childhood. We spend most of our adult lives trying to get in touch with our “inner child” (meaning our innocence) and we forget the fragile balance and fraught trajectory we went through to grow up, to become who we are. We look back on it with rose-tinted glasses or in abject horror, and its mysteries confound us long after we should have moved on. The new film We the Animals is all about childhood.
There are thousands of examples of childhood in the movies, but you could probably count on one hand the number of times it’s been done authentically. For me, those films would include Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, the wrenching study of a 4-year-old girl’s grief in Ponette and Jeremiah Zagar’s just-released feature film debut, We the Animals, based on the novel by Justin Torres.
“It’s got an amazing first page,” Zagar has said. “I was blown away. I went to the store’s café and I just read the whole book. It’s like 100 pages, so it’s like reading an article.”
From such a slender volume, Zagar — with the help of Torres and co-screenwriter Dan Kitrosser — has crafted a rich and deeply rewarding meditation on brotherhood, love and sexuality. Told through the eyes of Jonah, the youngest son of a white woman and Puerto Rican father, it’s as if Terrence Malick turned his poet’s eye to the trials of a working class family and the shadowy gray areas of carnal and familial love in all its contradictions.
Jonah, in the hands of the young non-professional Evan Rosado, is a battlefield of conflict. (The performance is primarily silent, and Rosado has to communicate the mercurial flicker of emotions with his face and, most impressively, his eyes.) He watches the complicated dance between his Ma (Sheila Vand) and Pops (Raúl Castillo, a long way from Looking), and bridges a delicate balance with his older brothers Manny and Joel.
Jonah is an outsider, emotionally and by function of the narrative (and by the way much of the film is shot from a child’s perspective). He’s not sure why, and neither are we, at first, but the groundwork is laid for the discoveries to come.
“I was so moved by the book,” Zagar says, “all I really wanted to do was get the book right. There’s subtle hints of his [Jonah’s] sexuality throughout the book, but they’re not clear until the very end.” To his credit, Zagar — who is straight — had Torres and Kitrosser on hand to make sure the LGBTQ experience was portrayed authentically. Zagar’s background in documentaries grounded the working class experience in realism.
In some way, We the Animals is reminiscent of the recent Academy Award-winning Moonlight — it’s a small, measured film about burgeoning sexuality that’s specific to a vastly underrepresented population (one who is black; one who is mixed race). It would be great if it found an audience of similar size and critical mass.
Watch the We the Animals trailer below:
We the Animals is in theaters today.
Featured image courtesy of Sundance Institute