Based on the slim, lyrical novella by Justin Torres, We The Animals tells the story of a lower-middle-class family living in upstate New York. Jonah, Manny, and Joel are three hard-to-tame brothers who feed off each other’s energy to such an extent that it’s hard to tell them apart. What one does, they all do. What one wants, they all want.
Their parents, played by Raúl Castillo, and Sheila Vand, have equal verve and passion for life, which is why their relationship is so tumultuous. They canoodle, they fight, they separate, they get back together. Sometimes their self-interest gets in the way of raising the boys, leaving the “animals” to fend for themselves. The boys’ father laments that this family will never transcend its paycheck-to-paycheck roots, and that’s probably true of everyone except Jonah, who has hidden talents and secret desires we sense will take him out of this contained world someday.
As the film begins, 10-year-old Jonah is a “we.” The brothers are barely distinguishable from each other, and travel always as a pack. But as they get older, Jonah starts to stand out in subtle ways. He’s more sensitive, and maintains a closer relationship with his mother. He draws, a fact which he feels the need to hide from his family. His father wistfully distinguishes him from his brothers by calling him the “pretty one.” And he’s attracted to a neighbor boy, a few years older — old enough to introduce him to beer and porn. The differences between Jonah and his brothers grow more pronounced as they inch closer to puberty. Ultimately, We The Animals turns out to be a tragic title. Our protagonist shifts from being a member of a family to party of one; from “we” to “I.” It’s a transition every child goes through, in part, but Jonah stands to face a harsher reckoning than his brothers. There is safety in numbers, and Jonah is the odd man out.
Co-written and directed by Jeremiah Zagar, We The Animals captures the elegiac, ethereal spirit of its source material while taking a direction of its own. Though the movie roots us in Jonah’s point of view, we see his mother, father, and brothers more objectively in film than in prose, widening this story’s scope. His father could be seen as a brute in a certain light. But Castillo (of HBO’s Looking, in a strong supporting performance) manages to convey the character’s inner conflict and regret, so we feel for him even when he makes some pretty egregious parenting mistakes. The same goes for Sheila Vand as the temperamental, occasionally toxic mother who begs Jonah to stay a little boy forever, even as her self-absorption forces him to grow up much too fast.
We The Animals packs a lot of thematic weight into a short running time and a slight story. It’s about lacking prospects for the American working class, especially true for ethnic minorities — and how the American dream beckons nevertheless. It’s about fraternity and masculinity, feral and fragile and toxic all at once. It’s a coming of age story, broaching the topic of preadolescent sexuality as rarely explored on the screen. It portrays art as both a damning differentiator and a beacon of hope.
Zagar’s film may remind us of other recent films that burrowed into childhood — the magically realist Beasts Of The Southern Wild, the rude and rambunctious Florida Project, the nostalgic impressionism of Boyhood, and Moonlight, which also depicted a kid grappling with his queerness in a tough environment. But We The Animals is also its own beast, its protagonist more sure of himself. With documentary-like observation, it captures the fleeting details of a boy’s everyday life, then also heightens them as filtered through Jonah’s artist’s imagination. As a boy, perhaps Jonah still has a lot to learn and a long way to grow. But as a storyteller, We The Animals suggests, he is who he is all along, and not even this modest, turbulent upbringing will silence the creator within.
Jonah hides a journal full of sketches that abstractly tell his story, knowing his family wouldn’t understand his urge to express himself. Through his imagination, Jonah becomes an explorer. There, he is much bolder than his brothers, much more adventurous than he ever could be as part of “the pack.”
Jonah likes boys, and Jonah is a sensitive and thoughtful artist. Maybe those two things have something to do with each other, maybe not — but both are intrinsic to his identity. They go deeper, even, than his relationship with his family, and though this is not really a “coming out” film, we do sense a looming journey on Jonah’s horizon, one he’ll need to embark upon without much support from his parents and brothers. Life hasn’t prepared him well for this quest — but he has, perhaps, adequately prepared himself.
Not everyone who feels at odds with their family is gay, of course, but queer viewers are likely to find something in We The Animals that speaks specifically to them — about learning, and also always knowing, that you are different from what you’re assumed and expected to be. As specific as that is, Jonah’s sexual orientation isn’t the sole factor that sets him apart from his parents and his siblings. He’s thoughtful. He’s creative. He’s perceptive. He’s smart. Even if he weren’t gay, these factors would likely set him on a path that strays far from his family.
Most people live within the parameters life sets for them, and are content with that. They may struggle, but they don’t take the kind of risks that truly change our circumstances. They don’t know how to. Essentially, they can’t. And then there are those like Jonah, who can only step outside the boundaries they were born in, because they never did belong.