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We the Animals

We the Animals

[…] Jeremiah Zagar returns to the grammar of perception, where sound, image and touch are presented at their elemental and elementary levels. Together with the three young celebrated brothers, these elements are the true protagonists of the story, for they occupy the screen over and over, like sensory explosions.

[…] Even if the homosexual theme is not really treated as such but only indirectly thanks to the long construction of the complex familiar and social context throughout the film, this is exactly the reason why the late entrance of the theme appears as already mature, rich in colours and meaning.

A child’s voice over, a finger tapping on a drawing, a close-up on the eye: these are the ingredients of the incipit of We the Animals, the filmic transposition of Justin Torres’ acclaimed novel (2011). Jeremiah Zagar returns to the grammar of perception, where sound, image and touch are presented at their elemental and elementary levels. Together with the three young celebrated brothers, these elements are the true protagonists of the story, for they occupy the screen over and over, like sensory explosions. This is the simple secret of the incredible sensuality that this film is able to emanate, in almost every moment.

Zagar’s filmic language, far from any representative intention, is completely monopolised by expression, each scene being akin to a condensed, highly emotive souvenir. Indeed, this would be our perspective as spectators – which will shortly be relinquished, as Zak Mulligan’s intense and immersive 16mm camera pushes us into the perspective of Jonah, the youngest of the three inseparable boys. We truly have the impression of feeling like a child, with its typical impressionistic but acute feeling, a sense that, even through the joy and the beauty, one is able to experience hurt. This is Justin Torres’, but also Jeremiah Zagar’s – and certainly often our own – journey into childhood, brotherhood, and filiality.

The purely narrative moments of We the Animals are displayed as if they were fragmentary intrusions into both a more general and precise mood - Jonah’s one- so very anarchic and tender at the same time. These narrative moments mainly work as occasional triggers to reveal the complex puzzle of Jonah’s character and, moreover, its evolution. The little dramas pile up to slowly build a proper story, the story of a family, but also – indirectly – the story of American society in the province (the film is shot in Utica, not so far from New York – and Jonah’s mother used to live in Brooklyn). Here, freedom is superficial, and a moment of fragility within the family can quickly turn into an irreversible slipping outside of the limits of a sustainable social life.

Together with the emergence of the story, Jonah’s evolution does not take the classical path of a coming-of-age film, but rather one of a dramatic coming out. The final outburst of Jonah’s homosexuality has enormous power over us. Even if the homosexual theme is not really treated as such but only indirectly thanks to the long construction of the complex familiar and social context throughout the film, this is exactly the reason why the late entrance of the theme appears as already mature, rich in colours and meaning. Jonah’s suffering for the discovery and acceptance of his feelings is resumed only in few scenes but, retrospectively, we see the whole story as always haunted by Jonah’s being different, gentler, and more sensitive. The isolation of the family from society – which often takes the positive dimension of a joyful oasis against the general conformism of said society – is therefore amplified by Jonah’s isolation within the family. Jonah’s break with the family is as profound, as for a long time he could live in its strong moments of shared affection, fantasy and solidarity, freedom and freedom of expression.

From this final perspective, the vivid realism of the main characters assumes a paradigmatic tonality. The mother, the father, and the brothers each constitute a psychological or social category. In this, the interpretation of Evan Rosado (Jonah), Sheila Vand (the mother) and Raul Castillo (the father) are very impressive, as they are able to carry the clichés of their characters and their denial at the same time, thereby constructing very complex personae. The dynamics of love and violence, however, always tend to prevail, and Jonah’s final break with the family also has the flavour of liberation, even if it is a very painful one.

 

First published: October 21, 2018

We the Animals | Film | Jeremiah Zagar | USA 2018 | 94’ | Everybody’s Perfect Genève 2018

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