Our childhood stays with us forever, and no matter how hard we try, we can never escape it. Based on Justin Torres’ debut novel, We The Animals is a masterpiece on human psychology and an agonizing, but bold inquiry into the lives of the neglected and abused. Jeremiah Zagar’s first non-fiction film creates a fully actualized tapestry of raw, explosive emotion, dreamlike visuals and impressionistic vignettes, all of which work together flawlessly to showcase the aftermath of domestic violence.
The motion picture is set in the 90s and follows the life of a lower-class family from the rural area of upstate New York. Jonah (Evan Rosado), Joel (Josiah Gabriel) and Manny (Isaiah Kristian) are three brothers with dysfunctional parents who constantly neglect them and are violent towards each other. In the midst of brutal arguments, repeated abandonment and aggression, the children are faced with an early maturity, forced to fend for themselves after their father has deserted them and their mother is unable to get out of bed.
Featuring sublime imagery that enraptures the viewer into the story world from the very first scene, We The Animals explores daunting topics such as abandonment, isolation and the cycle of domestic abuse using dark humour, brilliant performances and a series of interconnected escapist vignettes. The film embodies a wide range of moods and frames of mind, each of them treated with a different approach and depicted through either painstakingly precise recollections, observation, expressive imagery or poetic voiceovers and dialogue. These elements and means of storytelling flow together and instinctively alternate all throughout the movie, allowing Zagar to unreservedly enter the mind of a lost and confused child, as well as to relay the insides of this troubled psyche to the viewer in a manner that leaves them speechless and entranced.
The trademarks that make Torres’ book so unique and powerful are extremely difficult to implement in a cinematic context and can easily slip into cliché and melodrama or come across as an artificially executed narrative. But Zagar rises up to the challenge and masterfully retains the essence that makes the novel unforgettable – his gild-edged technique ensures that, although some of the structure and faithfulness to the original text have been lost, the defining aspects of Torres’ story remain unfettered and imposing. The initial timeline is also compromised and the viewer can only witness Jonah’s development over the course of six months (instead of from the age of six towards his late adolescence). If the novel had little to no discourse, Zagar’s adaptation takes it even further and excessively cuts back on the already sparse conversation. The dialogue is only employed when absolutely crucial to the narrative, and most of the focus lies on the free-flowing cinematography and imagery. Most communication is rendered through wide-angle lenses and close-ups, lyrical montages and the heartrending voiceover of the main character.
The dark territory of the individual and collective human psyche permeates Zagar’s motion picture, who tackles widespread issues like domestic violence, homophobia, poverty and ongoing abuse. However, there is not much emphasis on their far-reaching, communal repercussions, but rather on the effects that they have on a personal level. There is a sense of play and minimizing which is consistently juxtaposed over each of these heavy topics – the children laugh at their battered mother, they almost jovially chant when finding out their father has been left without a job and a means of financially supporting them and they amuse themselves by role-playing a grisly phone conversation between their parents. Zagar also cleverly captures all of the subtleties and rousing moments in which the three boys pick up on cues, anticipate, observe, learn and soak in behaviours and modes of relating from their caregivers. The manner in which the director exposes how these demeanours are later emulated by the kids is not straightforward, but all the more impactful. The viewer can gradually see a deep-rooted shift in perspective, as well as how every single experience leaves a permanent imprint on the children and in time shapes their entire persona.
We The Animals is a marvellously photographed study of boyhood. It encompasses a vivid and compelling portrait of rural, lower-class families, a heartfelt, intimate and gripping analysis of how childhood abuse affects us and permanently alters us, but also a riveting montage of the inner life of those who have been hurt and neglected from an early age. Our past stays with us forever, and although we can never escape it, we can go beyond its most traumatic wounds – this seems to be Zagar’s ultimate message, as we witness Jonah finding his old drawings in the film’s final scene and freely flying over the forest near his home.
All pictures reproduced courtesy of The Orchard