A gay coming-of-age tale told in the impressionistic style of David Gordon Green’s “George Washington,” Jeremiah Zagar’s adaptation of Justin Torres’ autobiographical 2011 novel is visually arresting and impressively acted, especially by the youngsters in the cast. In the end, however, “We The Animals” is more memorable for its look and feel than for the rather familiar tale it tells.
Jonah (Evan Rosado) is the youngest of the three sons of a fractious couple. Paps (Raul Castillo) is the loving but irresponsible father, who is unable to hold a job. He’s occasionally rough with Jonah—his idea of teaching the boy to swim is simply to toss him in the lake—but more so with his wife (Sheila Vand), who nonetheless loves him deeply. Jonah’s constant companions are his older siblings Manny (Isaiah Kristian) and Joel (Josiah Gabriel), with whom he roams the woods and cavorts in bed as they try to keep warm.
Most of the film’s incidents are domestic, including a thoroughly unpleasant one in which Paps assaults Ma and tries to persuade the kids that her injuries were the result of a dental emergency, and another in which Paps, working as a security guard, gets irate when he’s fired. There’s also a plotline in which Paps, having disappeared for awhile, returns, having bought a new pickup for the family, which makes Ma irate since he ignored the fact that the cab isn’t large enough to accommodate the entire family.
Despite the ups and downs in the family dynamic, however, there’s an idyllic cast to the proceedings, accentuated by the periodic insertion of animated sequences in images drawn by Mark Samsonovich in colored pencil as representations of those Jonah scribbles obsessively in notebooks. These add to the lyrical feel of Zak Mulligan’s cinematography, with lustrous images of fields, lakes and dew-drenched ground.
The action remains mostly familial, but there is a major exception when the boys stumble upon an elderly neighbor who introduces them to his visiting grandson (Giovanni Pacciarelli), a shaggy-haired teen who shows them his sexually-explicit videotapes. His older brothers treat them with juvenile giggles, but they awaken something in Jonah that leads him to an inchoate understanding that his longings are different from theirs. That realization will lead to a conclusion that takes the film into the realm of surrealism, or perhaps it would be better to say magic realism.
Zakar brings an artist’s touch to Torres’ gauzy memory piece, and it often strikes a terribly arty note. But the loveliness he and Mulligan bring to the images is undeniable. And the naturalistic performances he draws from Rosado, Kristian and Gabriel make one believe that the boys truly are brothers finding their way in the world. The fact that Castillo and Vand are equally credible adds to the sense of authenticity that shines through the gleaming visuals.
There’s undeniably a precious quality to Zagar’s artsy coming-of-age tale, but he also manages to make it an affecting portrait of a childhood at once dreamlike and nightmarish.