Directed by: Jeremiah Zagar Written by: Zagar and Dan Kitrosser
I was deeply frustrated with the closing shot of We the Animals. I also found it very beautiful. One school of thinking on such a reaction would say that I should defer to the positive reaction: something that is frustrating but beautiful can be understood as a beauty that just takes thinking to appreciate. I’m open to the possibility that I simply haven’t thought enough about We the Animals (and admittedly I haven’t read the Justin Torres novel it is based on), but I would say I’m fairly confident in my ambivalence about that scene, a reaction that sums up my relationship to the film.
One of We the Animals’ strengths is that it is a deeply sensorial movie. We hear pencil scratches as red bursts onto a child’s page. The camera often aims down showing the soil and water the characters’ feet traverse, while also taking care to show the technologies of their world. As a film based on a semi-autobiographical story this approach makes sense: nothing quite spells nostalgia like a careful recreation of the colors and textures of one’s life.
This sensorial quality goes well with the films title. The movie is “animalistic” in that it asks up to appreciate places and events but not words. The film’s title, however, is also where my criticism stems from. An easy way to understand the title is that it refers to the film’s protagonist, 10 year old Jonah (Evan Rosado) and his two slightly older brothers, Manny (Isaiah Kristian) and Joel (Josiah Gabriel). The boys often walk around shirtless and find ways to survive in their unstable household. Once the movie really gets underway events take place that plainly make this interpretation come to fruition, but these events are then reversed with plenty of film left to run.
Once Jonah, Joel and Manny’s animalistic state is interrupted the film never quite picks up again. This is not to say it doesn’t have memorable moments (it has plenty), but they stop feeling like they add up to something. At this point the story is no longer one that pits the three “animals” against their parents (Raúl Castillo and Sheila Vand), but rather Jonah, to varying degrees against the world. This feels an odd decision in a story called We the Animals: at best it’s a tale of We the Animal. And this is a problem even before the film moves away from Jonah’s brothers, for while the film does feature important brother bonding moments, it makes no effort to define Manny and Joel as individuals. When they stop being relevant in their role as Jonah’s brothers, their status as titular animals becomes entirely forgettable.
The closing shot of We the Animals depicts the forest surrounding the family’s house from the air. As I said, it’s striking, but I also don’t get it. It could be said to represent Jonah’s smallness in a big world, yet given that his family’s lives are not restricted to their immediate, forested surroundings, this imagery does not feel particularly fitting. It’s beautiful, but I don’t get it: and I can’t help but assume that We the Animals offers a kind of indie realism (coupled with a little magical realism) where there really is nothing to get.