‘We the Animals,’ based on the novel by UI alumnus Justin Torres, premieres at FilmScene

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Raúl Castillo (Paps) and Evan Rosado (Jonah) in ‘We the Animals.’ — film still

There was no way FilmScene wasn’t going to get its hands on We the Animals. The film is not only based on a novel of the same name by Justin Torres, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but Torres worked closely with the film’s director to realize his story onscreen.

The 2012 novel We the Animals is an affecting tale told in a mere 128 pages, following a working-class family in 1980s New York state headed by an abusive, often absent father and negligent mother. Their three half-Puerto Rican, half-white sons galumph around the wet, wooded area in which they live, basking in childhood freedom while facing challenges including hunger, a disrupted living situation and, in the case of the youngest brother, a secret journey to discovering same-sex attractions.

The film version of We the Animals, directed by Jeremiah Zagar, has been credited with uncannily capturing the poeticism of Torres’ first, semi-autobiographical novel. It premieres today at FilmScene.

Two of my favorite movies from the last two years are Moonlight and The Florida Project, and We the Animals has elements of them both, including an almost documentarian depiction of childhood antics and a focus on the intersection of race, poverty and sexuality.

For better or worse, We the Animals gives in to a plethora of indie/arthouse clichés: dramatic voice-over narration, “shaky cam” cinematography, a dysfunctional central family, coming-of-age themes, an artistic device (in this case, animations that bring to life the colored pencil drawings Jonah creates in an effort to make sense of his world and feelings), scenes of characters running through nature and enjoying a breezy car ride to ambient music, and an ambiguous ending to top it off. We the Animals is the Sundance Film Festival made flesh (and it in fact premiered at Sundance this past January).

Happily, the film doesn’t sacrifice story for aesthetics, nor does it descend into problematic poverty porn like many films, TV shows and documentaries with similar settings. Its characters are loved and flawed, leaving no clear heroes and villains. Issues such as mental health, domestic violence, food insecurity and childhood sexuality are highlighted in a relatively unflinching and emotionally striking way. In other words, there’s an authenticity to the storytelling, even if presented in a dreamlike fashion.

I was enraptured with the central performances. Rookie actor Evan Rosado — reportedly discovered at a Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York City — is wonderful as 10 year-old Jonah, an ocean of innocence and curiosity behind his grey-blue eyes. I was giddy to see Sheila Vand, star of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night as Ma, and I can’t imagine Paps as anyone but Raúl Castillo, who captures the uncomfortable duality of a character both detestable and sympathetic.

The relationships depicted are layered, complicated and truthful. Paps’ behavior towards his wife ranges from violent to intensely sexual to doting and supportive. He is clearly infatuated with his sons, but his pride and love for them doesn’t stop him from skipping out at every opportunity. Ma will douse her children in love, especially Jonah, then ignore them for great lengths of time. The three brothers sometimes feel like clones of one another, exploring and surviving their situation by the strength of their bond, but the more Jonah comes into his own, the more distant his brothers become. And though you want to support Jonah in his crush on another boy, that boy is older, somewhat deadbeat and way too obsessed with his VHS porno tape.

Not one expression of love depicted onscreen is pure and uncomplicated, and that is what I found most fascinating about We the Animals.

“It dealt with familial love in a way that I had never seen on screen before, and in a way that was very close to the way my family dealt with love,” Zagar told NPR when discussing why he chose to adapt Torres’ story. “There was an intimacy and a brutality and a messiness and a joy that were all kind of wrapped together.”


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Check the FilmScene calendar to find an upcoming screening of We the Animals.

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