Based on Justin Torres' 2011, autobiographical debut novel, We the Animals seemed an unlikely candidate for film adaptation. The book is impressionistic, fragmented, deeply felt but nearly non-narrative as it tells of a working-class family's turbulent home life. Somehow, though, Zagar has found a way to let the film's scenes surface and recede the way memories do.
Scenes about breakfasts and truck rides, dancing, cuddling, and roughhousing in the care of a mixed-race couple who've moved upstate looking for a good life that hasn't materialized. Paps (Raul Castillo), a night watchman, is Puerto Rican; Ma (Sheila Vand), who works in a bottling plant, is white. They met when she was underage, and a dozen years later are still crazy in love.
But dead-end-jobs and struggling-to-make-ends-meet was never the plan, so sometimes they're not just lovers, but also fighters—she protective of the kids, he rough and tumble (or just rough)—which means the boys need to figure out what's happening when, say, Paps packs his things and takes off after one fight that leaves Ma bruised, and in the words of her sons, "purple ... crazy ... tore-up." That rates a note and an illustration in Jonah's journal, animated with Mark Samsonovich's scratchy pen drawings for the film.
That fight also leaves Ma too depressed to leave her bed for a week or so, which gives the kids a chance to eat themselves out of house and home, and then go foraging at a convenience store, in the woods, and on a farm, where a gruff but kind-hearted farmer gives them a hot meal, while glimpses of his striking blond grandson give Jonah feelings he doesn't quite know what to do with.
Filmmaker Zagar is a documentarian, making his first fiction feature here, working with youngsters who'd never acted before, and creating a dreamlike narrative where Jonah's carousing merges with his fantasies about adulthood, and his confusion over things his parents say and do—Paps loving and leaving; Ma loving and clinging.
"I remember your heart inside me," she whispers to Jonah as she hugs him close, "tickin' like a bomb."
That's quite the image, and applies equally to Jonah at age nine—ticking like a bomb with explosive sensual feelings, and the realization that there are ways in which he is not like his brothers.
We the Animals catches its characters as they are right on the cusp of the growth spurt that will propel them into their teens—into the years when they'll finally grow out of the feral joys of childhood. Grow, in the case of journal-keeping Jonah, perhaps to be a writer who'll try to capture in words this summer of wanting more—this summer when things began to change—and make it intense, scary and ecstatically lyrical.