By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 8, 2018)
In my 2009 review of Lea Pool’s film Mommy is at the Hairdressers, I wrote:
It’s a perfect film about an imperfect family; but like the selective recollections of a carefree childhood, no matter what the harsh realities of the big world around you may have been, only the most pleasant parts will forever linger in your mind.
I could almost say the same thing about Jeremiah Zagar’s We the Animals. I say “almost”, because Zagar’s film falls short of “perfect” (more on that shortly). Still, it does succeed in conveying how those “selective” memories of childhood become increasingly ephemeral and abstract as we careen through adult life, slipping ever closer to the abyss.
Adapted by the director and Dan Kitrosser from Justin Torres’ novel, the film is a lyrical slice of life about a working-class Puerto Rican family living in central New York State. The narrative primarily unfolds through a 9-year-old’s point-of-view. His name is Jonah (Evan Rosado). He and older siblings Joel (Josiah Gabriel) and Manny (Isiah Kristian) are de facto latchkey kids, because their young parents (Shelia Vand and Raul Castillo) are often too preoccupied with the drama that generates from their tempestuous marriage.
As a survival mechanism, the brothers have created an idiosyncratic sub-family unit a la Lord of the Flies, with their own set of rules, hierarchy and ritualistic behaviors. Joel and Manny are already displaying signs that they may be inheriting their father’s prideful machismo, whereas Jonah shares his mother’s empathic sensitivity and emotional frailty.
Jonah’s internalized dialog throughout implies he is sharing these sense memories with some benefit of hindsight from an indeterminate point in the future. Oddly, unlike the adult Sean Penn character reassembling bits and pieces of his lost childhood in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life (a film that feels like a looming influence, to put it politely), it’s Jonah’s 9-year-old “self” who is doubling here as our omniscient narrator (far out, man).
I’m not saying there is anything wrong with emulating Malick; after all, as Woody Allen retorts in Manhattan after someone derisively tells him he has a God complex, “I gotta model myself after someone.” I’m willing to grade on a curve, especially given this is Zagar’s first narrative feature (his previous films have been documentaries). On the plus side: Zagar coaxes naturalistic performances from the first-time child actors, Zak Mulligan’s “magic hour” cinematography is striking, and Nick Zammuto’s soundtrack nicely complements (I strongly suspect his favorite album is “Dark Side of the Moon”).
On the down side: there’s nothing wrong with an art film, but this one leans toward being a little too self-consciously arty for its own good. I think Zagar is a talent to keep an eye on; I’m just hoping that his future narrative features will feature a little more…narrative.