Manny, Joel and Jonah tear their way through childhood and push against the volatile love of their parents. As Manny and Joel grow into versions of their father and Ma dreams of escape, Jonah embraces an imagined world all his own.
Director: Jeremiah Zagar
Writers: Daniel Kitrosser, Jeremiah Zagar
Stars: Raúl Castillo, Josiah Gabriel, Terry Holland
When it’s time for 9-year-old Jonah to learn how to swim, his father throws him into a lake. The boy almost drowns.
“How else you gonna learn?” his father asks.
Violence is a primary tool in the tool belt for Paps (Raúl Castillo), a man with many positive traits that are negated by this one major flaw that disrupts a rural Pennsylvania family in the 1980s in “We the Animals,” a dreamlike, absorbing emotional experience by director Jeremiah Zagar.
Adapted from Justin Torres’ debut novel from 2011, Zagar’s bravura direction, with a visual style by cinematographer Zak Mulligan, is lyrical and poetic in an approach that would suggest Terence Malick, complete with wistful narration by the film’s young protagonist.
Jonah (Evan Rosado) is the heart and sensitive soul of the story. He has tight bonds with his two slightly older brothers, Joel (Josiah Gabriel) and Manny (Isaiah Kristian). He loves his dad and mom (Sheila Vand), even as they struggle to make ends meet and raise a family. Arguments and passion between mom and dad are two sides of the same coin — emotional outcries for an elusive happiness.
To escape, Jonah hides under the bed and draws, his crude and creative images, given animated life, serving as catharsis. He longs for an elusive peace, which the family once had.
“Sometimes we had less,” Jonah narrates. “Less work. Less noise. Just this.”
The near-drowning incident creates a seemingly irreparable rift in the family. Paps disappears; a brutally beaten Mom (as befitting a story told from a 9-year-old’s point of view, we never learn the names of the parents) stays in the house, hiding from the world and leaving the brothers to their own ingenuity.
They steal from a convenience store. They befriend a rural farmer’s son, who introduces them to porn on VHS. They play in the woods, inventing their own games.
Without revealing much more about this special film, Paps eventually returns. And sadly, the three brothers, whom we have come to love, begin to show that they are absorbing the wrong lessons from their father.
Perhaps that’s what Mom means when she tells Jonah on his 10th birthday, “Promise me you’ll stay young forever. If you stay my baby boy, I’ll always have you.”
In other words, you won’t turn out like Dad. It’s a plea from a broken heart in this fearless and uncompromising movie that is one of the best of the year so far.
– G. Allen Johnson, SF Chronicle