It’s not often that you see expressionist filmmaking. While poetry makes tragedy and hardship more bearable, sometimes it even makes it stunning to watch. We the Animals, a beautifully made poetic piece by filmmaker Jeremiah Zagar, stays with you because of its imagery and intimacy even after the last few frames have run.
The film doesn’t follow the stereotypical structured narrative style and we are mostly looking through a window, into the life of Jonah. While he is surrounded and burdened by his quarrelling parents, his dream world seems pretty unperturbed. The parents go through their pangs of economic woes, a violent relationship, and really trying to make it through one day at a time. Jonah scribbles his thoughts and life stories in a notebook, which sees images of violence and peace and quiet, both subsisting simultaneously.
The beauty of the film lies in the camera’s intimacy with this ten-year-old boy’s thoughts, experiences, and even his perception of himself. Whether it’s his relationship with the parents or his siblings (his two brothers Manny and Joel) there is a constant establishing and re-establishing of self that Jonah is working through. Evan Rosado as Jonah is compelling and empathetic and his beautiful eyes speak volumes every single time. Raúl Castillo as Paps and Sheila Vand as Ma are equally credible and don’t come across as detached, unaffected parents. While caught in the trials of their volatile relationship and life in general, their engagement with their children finds space in the film. Tender moments of the five playing together suddenly switch when the three boys start to hit Paps for not being able to find them and be there for them. Zagar cuts to drawings of sexual images and simultaneous violence as metaphors line the length of the film.
While Jonah is the eyes of the film, the boys together are its sails as we share more of their time moving through spaces and just constantly experiencing childhood. There is a telling moment in the film when the three boys are sitting on the couch watching TV and they respond to the discourse by closing their eyes, attempting to feel God. They repeat in unison, “we feel God…..us three.”
Growing up isn’t easy, nor does one find solutions in the idealistic world of a ten year old boy. The fact that Jonah has the safety of his thoughts and his emotions makes We the Animals an emotionally satisfying journey.