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Justin Torres’ expressively pithy 2011 debut novel, We the Animals, conjured a tough childhood similar to that of the author, about a boy inseparable from his two brothers while their parents fought and reconciled and fought some more as they grappled with a seemingly inescapable reality of blue-collar hopelessness. Informed by a culture of violence and anger, the preteen narrator’s voice shifts fluidly from unflinchingly raw to lyrical and impressionistic, slowly shaping an affecting story of maturation and sexual awakening that concludes with the kind of exposure that will alter the fragile family dynamic forever. It’s a breathlessly personal fever dream of a book, and a tricky proposal for screen adaptation.
In his first narrative feature, documentary maker Jeremiah Zagar (In a Dream, Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart) captures the feel of the novel with uncanny precision, notably in the visceral charge and physical heat of tightly wound bodies almost constantly moving in close proximity. His strong casting also is key, including the three natural young nonprofessional actors as the siblings, along with Sheila Vand (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) and Raul Castillo (Looking) as their parents, identified only as Ma and Paps. We the Animals is a tiny film but mesmerizing in its own loose, dreamy way; it’s also a distinctive take on the discovery of queer identity.
Zagar and co-screenwriter Dan Kitrosser prune back Torres’ already minimal exposition, plunging us into the world of the three close-in-age brothers, a writhing human knot of sinewy limbs yearning for more muscle, more volume, more freedom. Their parents — Ma is white, Paps is Puerto Rican — met at high school in Brooklyn and moved upstate in search of better employment opportunities and housing as the family grew. They live in a modest home surrounded by woods in a sleepy industrial town. (Location shooting was done in Utica, New York.) Ma works at the local brewery, while Paps, whose bad-boy roots are tattooed on his shoulder, seems to be mostly between jobs. But his lean masculinity exerts a magnetic pull both for his wife and for the boys, all three of them attuned to the ebb and flow of tensions between their parents.
In concrete narrative terms, relatively little happens. But Jonah (Evan Rosado), who is the youngest, as well as the eyes, ears and voiceover of the story, is marked by a number of formative experiences.
While paddling in a lake, his father decides the way to teach the boy to swim is just to drop him in the deep and leave him to flail his way to the surface. Later, when Paps has hit their mother, he explains away her facial swelling to their sons by claiming it’s dental preparation for teeth extraction. And as his brothers, Manny (Isaiah Kristian) and Joel (Josiah Gabriel), evolve in subtle ways to emulate their dad, the more sensitive Jonah’s mother draws him close to her, eliciting a promise from him never to grow older.
Jonah remains part of a tight unit with his brothers, half-naked and feral as they tag-team to shoplift or just race around letting off steam. But his response to the conflicting forces around him gradually makes him an outsider in the group, aware of his differences, particularly his amorphous attraction to a trashy local farmer’s kid who invites them into his basement hangout to watch video porn.
Meanwhile, Paps abruptly disappears from their lives after a heated argument, later returning with a pickup truck that Ma points out is completely impractical for a three-child family. He tries to turn a corner, taking a security job, but like the broke-down vehicle, it doesn’t last.
Their father’s depression, and his sense of never being able to escape their stagnant situation, infects the boys, who feel responsible. But at other times he can be unexpectedly tender with them and their mother, with whom the erotic connection remains powerful. One of the areas in which Zagar’s film is most effective is the way the camera watches the boys watching the adults, absorbing and processing even when the unpredictable mood shifts leave them confused.
Zagar works seamlessly with cinematographer Zak Mulligan to create an environment that’s both recognizably rural and otherworldly at the same time, laced with underwater sequences, arresting shots of a muddy grave, and abstract interludes of levitation and flying. Some of the symbolic elements are a little obvious, but it all works, wrapped up in composer Nick Zammuto’s melancholy ambient music and an elemental soundscape of rain, wind and heartbeats.
Preteen sexuality is sensitive terrain, but the filmmakers explore Jonah’s growing awareness in dynamic yet restrained terms, using Mark Samsonovich’s scratchy pen drawings to animate the boy’s illustrated, obsessively scribbled notebooks. Desire, darkness and death, violence and liberation all converge in images that suggest the tough path ahead, even if Jonah seems to have arrived at the biggest hurdle — of knowing himself — ahead of time.
Cast: Evan Rosado, Isaiah Kristian, Josiah Gabriel, Raul Castillo, Sheila Vand
Production companies: Cinereach, Public Record
Director: Jeremiah Zagar
Screenwriters: Dan Kitrosser, Jeremiah Zagar, based on the novel by Justin Torres
Producers: Jeremy Yaches, Christina D. King, Andrew Goldman, Paul Mezey
Executive producers: Philipp Engelhorn, Michael Raisler
Director of photography: Zak Mulligan
Production designer: Katie Hickman
Costume designer: Valentine Freeman
Music: Nick Zammuto
Editors: Keiko Deguchi, Brian A. Kates
Animation: Mark Samsonovich
Casting: Ann Goulder
Sales: Cinetic Media
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (NEXT)
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