Some of life’s biggest questions can only be answered within yourself. Sometimes these questions are best left answered through a journey of self discovery that attempts to arrange the chaotic unknown. But, that journey is never easy, from struggles at home to alienating yourself from those that could offer help or support. Jeremiah Zagar’s directorial debut We the Animals offers us a comprehensive—sometimes exhaustive— window into a young boy’s own journey of self discovery, how he navigates these big questions, and how they inhabit his deepest sense of self.
The films opens on three brothers —Manny, Joel, Jonah— looking out their bedroom window. Their existence is the center of the film, captivating the audience with an unrelenting view of their reality. These brothers do everything together: they entertain each other, they look out for each other, they look for food in their house together, they steal food at the mini-market together. The film is initially an outlook of poverty, dysfunctional family, sexuality, and the way they all come together to influence one’s growth. Manny, Joel, and Jonah are the kids of Ma and Pa, played by Sheila Vand and Raúl Castillo, respectively. As we watch their parents unravel, the film shifts to the youngest brother, Jonah; he becomes the heart of We the Animals. In inhabiting Jonah’s perspective, we are able to gain a look into his world, his differences within his own family, and how those differences lead to alienation from his family.
The erraticism of Ma and Pa’s relationship is white noise for all the brothers, especially Jonah; it is a common, yet vicious, cycle where the parents quarrel and then Pa leaves. The constant turbulence between Ma and Pa reaches a point where it instead becomes foundational for the toxic masculinity of Jonah’s other two brothers, Manny and Joel. In a pivotal scene where Pa returns after a prolonged absence, the boy’s play turns violent as they hit and scream at their father. The two older boys have grown to possess a Herculean attitude of harshness and viciousness, much like their Pa. Whereas Jonah, who is the only one attentive to their Ma, is gifted her softness and meek demeanour, keeping his feelings to himself. These contrasting attitudes are shown when the family goes swimming in the lake. Jonah and Ma share the inability to swim, but they are still swayed into the lake by Pa. Despite trusting him, Pa lets them go and teaches them how to swim by leaving them in the middle of the lake. A lesson in survival, one would argue, but not for them. This scene is the culmination of Ma and Pa’s erratic relationship.
Water is also used as an element of disconnection in this film, used to especially illustrate Jonah’s attempts to understand his sexuality. Sequences of him sinking in the water let him disconnect from reality and unearth his truths, his desires, his unknown dispositions and inclinations. In particular, there is a moment where Jonah is watching porn with another boy and begins to enter the aforementioned water sequence. Under the subconscious water, Jonah is trying to understand what his feelings are for this boy, and when he returns to ‘reality,’ he touches the boy’s hair, eventually kissing him. Water is used as a subliminal space for Jonah to understand himself and what he truly wants. These moments of realization fuel his ability to trust himself rather than his family. Trust is a huge part of who he is, as he spent his whole life trusting his family to take care of him, keep him safe, and shield him from the ugly exterior of his reality. Yet, when his brothers discover the truth about his sexuality, that trust is broken as both his brothers and his mother stare at him and question his choices; his ability to trust becomes his worst companion. Now, at such a young age, he realizes that he can only truly trust himself.
Jeremiah Zagar’s ambition to illustrate the boy’s interiority is worth mentioning. There already may be comparisons to Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight made in other reviews, but those comparisons are justified. Both films are born out of distress and innocence; both feature journeys of discovering a sense of self and therefore, sexuality; both feature how the roles of patriarchal figure to shape and help develop a boy’s masculinity. But both films are distinctive in their own ways. The specialty in We the Animals lies in how art becomes Jonah’s tool, an escape, a safe space where he can make sense of himself as he draws pictures of naked boys to understand his own sexuality. It is a wonderful thing to see, all thanks to Evan Rosado, who plays Jonah. He is able to show so much under the surface of his character, which is contrasted against Zagar’s raw approach in direction.
Cinematographer Zak Mulligan shot the film in Super 16mm with wide lenses to give a sense of freedom to the actors and it results in a liberation where these child actors can act without having to feel self-conscious about their performances. Raúl Castillo and Sheilla Vand were both wonderful as Ma and Pa. Their portrayal of their relationship and its instability provide a chaotic backdrop for their kids’ situation and Jonah’s personal struggles throughout the film.
We the Animals presents us the world of a young boy struggling to make sense of his reality, sexual identity, and, overall, his existence. Survival is an unfamiliar concept to him since he has learned to depend on his brothers and, sometimes, his parents. So, when it shatters and everyone turns against him, he has to become independent. He has to be alone, because this is his own struggle and only he can understand what he is deep down. We the Animals is an excellent—if not traumatic—film to peel the reality of learning one’s undiscovered, unknown identity and how to learn not to look back.