Movie Reviews: We the Animals (2018)

The coming-of-age tale has been well represented both this year and last year, and while our latest entrant to the crowded genre certainly bears some traits of its forebears, there’s another film from last fall it more strongly recalls, The Florida Project.  That film, set in the shadow of Disney World followed a six-year-old who lives with her young, broke mother out of a motel, was a sort of hangout film with a loose connecting thread of a plot stringing together the individual scenes as we got to know their world.  We the Animals doesn’t quite establish a sense of place and supporting characters to the same extent, but it does maintain a similar narrative structure.

I say narrative structure, but the film is largely plot-less and filled with vignettes.  Set in rural, upstate New York and adapted from the book of the same name by Justin Torres, the movie features three inseparable brothers who are close in age, the two older ones who are largely indistinct from each other and a younger, more sensitive boy who is the primary focus of the film.  They all share a bed, have their own little rituals, go on adventures together, and support each other even though when their home life is less than ideal.  Jonah (Evan Rosado) though, who turns 10 early on in the film, is the one who shows indications early on that he may be a bit different, sneaking away at night to write and draw in his journal while being much closer to his mom (Sheila Vand of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, one of the many films to be featured in the upcoming Month of Horror) and more oblivious to the spousal abuse by their dad (Raúl Castillo of Looking) than the others.

The extent that Jonah and the other kids grow happens in fits and starts, mostly left to subtext with the biggest development being quite obvious early on.  The abusive relationship between the parents however is depressing in the way everything feels so helplessly stuck and hanging over the background.  That leaves the biggest focus on the style of the film which is hit or miss.

The often kinetic, handheld camerawork was hard for my eyes to follow along with and while it frequently aided the way the film would drift from scene to scene, I can’t say call “physically hard to look at” as a positive.  I also really hate this style that switches between a smooth look and an ultra-grainy style film (16 mm) in the same movie as it never fails to ruin immersion.  It’s especially egregious here since the switches seem to happen for no reason other than to cause a lurching visual effect.  There’s also animated segments (by Mark Samsonovich) taken from the boy’s journal that look like they are from a ’90s music video (not an objection coming from me), but they start to feel overused at a certain point and while they haven’t reached narrative saturation, their use here felt far too close to their use in so many recent docs.

The style’s not all as bad as I make it out to be in that paragraph though.  While Jeremiah Zagar (making his feature length, narrative debut) does occasionally go too far with its attempts to show off, the film generally does look great complete with periodic dabblings in magical realism are charming.   The characters’ actions may frustrate at times, but they feel natural and inevitable.  It’s a film that throws you into their world in order experience it and captures the moods and feelings of the age.