Based on the eponymous semi-autobiographical novel by Justin Torres, We the Animals is a debut feature film from the acclaimed documentary-maker Jeremiah Zagar. It’s the story of a highly dysfunctional half-Puerto-Rican family from rural upstate New York: a young and beleaguered ‘Ma’ (Sheila Vand) working in a local brewery, the abusive bully of semi-unemployed ‘Paps’ (Raul Castillo in a performance described as ‘brutal but not monstrous’ by one reviewer), and three small boys – Manny, Joel and Jonah, all living in a ramshackle and detached shingle house. And whereas ‘Ma’ and ‘Paps’ are trapped in a volatile relationship with endless fights and reconciliations, the nice-looking, yet internally near-feral, boys forcefully tear their way through childhood.
The youngest brother, Jonah, aged 9 (Evan Rosado), is the film’s on-and-off narrator, who allows the viewers to sneak an occasional glimpse of his ‘secret’ notebook, hidden under his mattress, chronicling the family’s gruesome daily routine as well as his own sexual and spiritual awakening. Zagar makes this notebook the film’s pivotal image, which ties together the otherwise episodic and disjointed (like the boys’ lives) plot.
The plight of children left to their own devices while their parents struggle through a volatile love-hate marriage, exacerbated by poverty, drink and drugs, is, sadly, a fairly common phenomenon in the modern world, irrespective of the country or the continent of residence. In my own travels, I have come across many a similar scenario almost everywhere: from my native Ukraine to Australia. In this respect, I am inclined to regard We the Animals as not just the film’s (and the original novel’s) title but as a condemning verdict of sorts to all of us, for as long as we keep living like brutes, we can’t call ourselves human.
Yet We the Animals – a classic and fairly typical coming-of-age story – stands out not just as another snapshot of the all-permeating ‘proletarian’ misery and despair, but as a work of art. This is down to the magnificent acting of all the cast, greatly enhanced by the splendid cinematography (by director of photography Zak Mulligan), blending digital and handheld 16mm-camera footage, often closing in on seemingly small, yet extremely telling details such as Jonah’s childish scribbles, his mother’s blood-stained handkerchief, or a neglected plant pot brimming with Paps’ cigarette butts.
‘Love is not a clean thing,’ says Ma, the only female in the cast, in one of the episodes while recovering from a severe beating by her husband, ‘and neither is life in general,’ as, I think, the director wanted to tell us in this movie. ‘Not clean, but still beautiful and worth living...’