“We the Animals”
Manny, Joel and Jonah
Jeremiah Zagar and Daniel Kitrosser have adapted Justin Torres’ novel. “We the Animals” is about growing up in a working-class family in upstate New York for the big screen. The story is told from the point of view of Jonah (Evan Rosado), who forms a unit with his two brothers Joel and Manny. They are often tangled together on the bed they share, Jonah is, right from the outset, starting to pull away from the other pair, enjoying a secret that’s all his own— a diary full of illustrations that is under the bed.
He writes in it at night, once his brothers are asleep and it is an outlet for emotions that he could never share with them or his Ma (Sheila Vand) and Paps (Raúl Castillo). Theirs is a household where emotions rule, sometimes to the family’s detriment and emotions also dominate the film. We are soon immersed in Jonah’s mindset and family life. We feel his and his brothers’ joy as their father instructs them to “shake it like you’re rich”, but that is matched by the outright panic experienced by Jonah later in the film when a swimming lesson goes wrong.
The story “has the dreamy flow of childhood remembered, but though the honeyed tones of the magic hour are often used, there’s never a glossing over the toughness of life being faced by these free-range kids, who are frequently left to fend for themselves.” Director Zagar proves himself a director who is willing to take a risk to tell his stories.
Manny, Joel and Jonah rush through childhood and push against the volatile love of their parents. As Manny and Joel grow into versions of their father and Ma dreams of escape, Jonah embraces an imagined world all his own.
We do not hear the name of the young boy at the center of “We the Animals” until just before it ends this is because we see Jonah form an identity of his own first. At the start of the film, the nine-year-old simply refers to himself as “me,” listing himself amongst his slightly older brothers Manny (Isaiah Kristian) and Joel (Josiah Gabriel), as well as his “Ma” and “Paps”) in such a way that you assume the family is so close they must always be acknowledged together. Still, as “We the Animals” moves forward, we realize how far apart they can be at times or how Jonah must distance himself to discover who he really is.
Jonah clearly gravitates towards remembrances of how his family will huddle together for warmth, but also cannot shake when Paps gives his mom a black eye, a result of a volatile relationship that sets an example for their sons, and lacking the comprehension to understand right and wrong causing the primal physicality to mean more of a give and take. Jonah is in touch with the emotions furiously stirring within himself, particularly when he and his brothers meet a boy around their age named Dustin, who impresses them with explicit VHS-taped sex hotline ads he grabbed off the TV while he was in Philadelphia. While Manny and Joel are transfixed by the topless women, Jonah staring at the split-second shot of two men making out.
This moment doesn’t last long in “We the Animals” but it leaves an impression the viewer and on Jonah, planting a seed for all the other things he may need to question. In “We the Animals” we see Paps moving in and out of the house to the mixed emotions of Ma, but every moment in the film is made to feel like a formative one for Jonah, ultimately leaving an audience as fulfilled as he is when he finally finds his sense of self.