“We the Animals” is an independent film that shares some of the goals and ideas from other indies, like “Moonlight” and “The Florida Project”. It also shares a similar feel to the films of Terrence Malick, having a very slow-paced and almost documentary feel to it. Some parts of the movie are contemplative and other parts use an alternative fantasy sequence to show the characters inner-most thoughts. It is entirely dependent on having three young actors play the main parts, three brothers living with difficult circumstances. But the young actors overcome whatever issues that can sometime sink an otherwise worthy production.
Jonah (Evan Rosado) is the youngest of three brothers, at age nine. Joel (Josiah Gabriel) and the oldest Manny (Isaiah Kristian) are normally found with all three of them together. It does not matter, as they run around the semi-rural area in upstate New York where they live. They have a dad, Paps (Raúl Castillo) who is Puerto Rican, and Ma (Sheila Vand) who is white. The three boys are olive-skinned and have close cropped hair. They are all younger than twelve or so. But they are bursting out with energy and vitality. These three are never shown attending any school, but they are being taught every day.
They are mostly taught by example from Paps and Ma, but usually not very good examples. Paps struggles to keeps a late-night shift job, and when he is upset about something, he will take it out (and beat up) on Ma. She also struggles to keeps a job, and she struggles to keep any self-respect. Ma knows that Paps loves her and the boys but wishes he would not be so brutal. Paps is angry that he had to marry Ma when they were both teens, and she was pregnant. Jonah is very observant and keeps a private journal about all that he sees.
Jonah has very mixed inner feelings, and he tries to express them in writing. He also draws a lot in his journal and sometimes he imagines that the images on the paper come to life and explain what he thinks. Sometimes he thinks in an alternative fantasy sequence that shows some of Jonah’s deepest feelings. There is a repeated idea of everything and everyone being underwater. There is a repeated idea of Jonah being lifted up off the ground to fly. Or, maybe, at least to float in the air. There are confused and mixed images of sexuality, and these might be indicating that he is internally gay. But he is way too young to express anything like that.
There is not much in the way to story movement. It slowly meanders back and forth to the three boys and what they are doing. Sometimes the focus is on Paps, and how he has trouble staying with the family, and trouble staying with a job. Ma wants to run away from the stress, but she is unable to decide what she should do. She looks to the boys to tell her what her next move should be. Joel and Manny do not know about Jonah’s secret journal, but when they find it, they feel they cannot trust him anymore.
“We the Animals” will not be a movie for everybody, but there some very moving performances from the trio of young actors. Given the subject matter, it might be difficult to watch. Jonah is just around ten years old, yet the story strays into his questioning feelings about other boys and men. The other odd part is the fantasy style sequences that do not mesh up all that well with the rest of the ‘documentary’ and ‘hard reality’ style of most of the other scenes. Also, Jonah’s journal creeps me out. The small writing filling up the entire page, plus the wild cartoonish drawings resemble something that serial killer might keep…
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