We the Animals is a 2018 film directed by Jeremiah Zagar based on the 2011 novel written by Justin Torres. The film follows Jonah (Evan Rosado) and his two brothers Joel (Josiah Gabriel), and Manny (Isaiah Kristian) as they navigate childhood through poverty, their parent’s abusive marriage, and questions of sexuality.
This is yet another film I cannot break down with “the good and the bad.” I don’t feel it’s a piece that can be looked at in that way as it feels entirely like a painting(?); you take from it what you can and what you will.
So, I wanted to go through just that; my observations of the film and what I could take away from We the Animals.
A Memory: Before getting to the meat of the story you have to first acknowledge the visuals of this; it’s a beautiful film. While there are many shots that seem to glue the images into your mind there are also shots that move quickly, appear randomy, and proceed so unfocused and shaky that a large part of the collective seems to blur together. The movie essentially presents itself as a memory does; we can remember specific moments vividly taking in the rising dust, or the texture of the earth, or the sound of the day, but then so much of it falls away into the void.
The movie drives home this point as the memory of Jonah by giving the viewer multiple shots where we only see his eyes within the frame.
Zagar succeeds at utilizing his experience in documentary film making to create this sense of nostalgia and reality for the story. Though these experiences weren’t exactly mine the movie feels like the story is in fact a part of myself, my past, and my own melancholy.
Brotherhood: The base of this film, and the safety net for these three boys, is each other. Their father (Raul Castillo) is a man frustrated by his circumstances. Their mother (Sheila Vand) sinks into her depressions and lacks the tools/wisdom/ courage to make a change to better the lives of her and her sons. The inability of both leaves the brothers to fend for themselves.
In the midst of hunger, abandonment, and destruction it is still the natural inclination of children to find play, laughter, and separation from the weight of things. The boys are able to lean on each other and find sanity and safety. “Body heat! Body heat!” the boys ritually chant together under a blanket with their flashlights creating warmth and safety.
The film doesn’t have to point it out but seeing their faith in each other and in what they have brings you profound sadness. Life hardens, and it can do so in the cruelest ways depending on ones circumstances and surroundings. You quickly see these innocents have the odds stacked against them and you continue through the story praying each other is enough.
Parenthood vs Partnerhood: The hardest challenge these brothers have is the toxic yet loving relationship of their parents, Paps and Ma. Their relationship is flooded with physical and verbal abuse yet at the same time you can tell there is true affection between them (affection at times that is super inapropriate and lacking concious boundries).
Is their father doing the best he can? I would say yes. I would say this man loves his sons more than anything- maybe even more than his wife! I truly believe they are his world. Yet his ways and his issues are nothing positive for Ma.
Here we have a very real issue with children; We must distinguish the difference between the quality of a person as a partner and as a parent. The boys love their father. They take personal offense at the idea that their mother would want to take them and leave him behind. They don’t consider that he hits her, that he doesn’t consider her, that he doesn’t make her happy. This doesn’t make the children evil; they’re children! This wild house is all they know and they want what they know even if it is terrible.
Mothering Myths: Ma, a character that lacks the emotional ability to make real choices for herself and her family, constantly finds herself clinging to her children for salvation. She does this more with Jonah than the the others.
When she dances with the idea of getting away and never returning she stops the car after hours of driving aimlessly with her sons. Crying and in frustration she surrenders the choice to the boys; “tell me what to do.”
It’s unfair not just for the kids but for herself. She is placing the decision of her well being on her children and, at the same time, I don’t believe she truly is. She knows the boys love their father and whether its miserable or not they would ultimately want to go back to him. She knows this. She isn’t really leaving the choice to them but serving the ball so it can come back to her exactly in the way that will excuse the inevitable return.
Aside from this pressure, at the beginning of the film, she clings tightly to Jonah on his birthday. She tells him to never get older and to always stay nine for her. He’s her safety in the disaster of her inability to choose. She might be unhappy, frustrated, tired, and hurt but she seeks to find ‘enough’ in him. She doesn’t want him to become a man like Paps and what she knows Manny and Joel in time will be as well. She sees the softness in him and craves to keep it.
This isn’t healthy! One assumes this is what makes Jonah gay. No. Jonah is gay because he’s gay! More on that below, but what this does do is place an unrealistic and unfair expectation on him. It burdens him to be the one emotionally responsible for his mothers wellbeing when he cannot be that. He has his own path to walk with his own decisions and inevitably his own mistakes.
Folding Inward: When Paps loses his job he has this mental break. He snaps. He gets home with the broken down truck and talks to his wife (though he seems to be talking more to life and nothing). “We’re never going to escape this; not us, not them.” This is part of the hardening mentioned earlier.
How does one escape poverty? Is it truly possible in a lifetime? How do you do it unscathed or unbroken? How do you avoid the traumas and damage passed down to you by those who suffered it before?
Towards the end of the film Paps words come true. Months have passed and Manny and Joel have internalized the pain of abandonment their father inherited to them. Paps and Ma did the best they could! It’s important to acknowledge the nuance that these two souls truly were doing everything they could with what they were carrying. Yet, it just wasn’t enough to spare their sons.
Both have become more violent, more aggresive, more disrespectful, and have taken up drinking. The “we” of the beginning of the film between the three brothers has broken apart and it has become “they” and “I.” Jonah is left on the outst where his “softness” is not welcome.
The end of the film culminates with his brothers betraying him by taking his journal pages and laying them out on the living room floor for their parents to see. His intimate thoughts, his secrets, his fears, his truth (still in the process of being formed; he’s ten) are exposed before his decision to voice them.
He has a breakdown, a violent explosion, and his father has to hold him down. Shortly after this scene it’s morning and Jonah walks into his brothers’ room and sees the pair asleep. Manny wakes up and takes out his flashlight with a smile. “Body heat! Body heat!”, he and Joel begin to chant again declaring peace between the brothers and welcoming Jonah back into the circle. They accept him for who he is and remember that safety still is with each other. I cried from this relief.
Yet, as the camera pans left back towards the door we see Jonah still standing there. He stares at his sleeping brothers thinking of that safety that in reality is no longer there. This broke me.
You enter this film praying that they’re enough, that each other is enough to protect them. The reveal that their ritual is only Jonah’s desperate hope is crushing to say the least.
To be young at a certain age is for everyone to be discovering who they are; what is sexuality, where do I stand in all of this? It’s alot! Yet for people like Jonah they have to deal with all of that while struggling with this unnamed and scary thing on top of it. We fold inward because of it. We isolate and become more quiet recognizing the world isn’t safe for us.
That little boy desperately needed the reassurance that his circle was still there. That camera landing on him still in the doorway may be the most haunting image of the film.
We the Animals is beautiful yet one that weighs heavy. I give this a 7 out of 10 potatoes.