See this fine art film: We the Animals

Oct 1, 2018

Realistic and fantastic, a perceptive and artistic look at three young brothers in an unselttled world.

We the Animals

Grade: B+

Director: Jeremiah Zagar (Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart)

Screenplay: Zagar, Daniel Kitrosser, from Justin Torres novel

Cast: Sheila Vand (A Girl Works Home Alone at Night), Raul Castillo (Looking)

Rating: R

Runtime: 1 hr 34 min

By: John DeSando

“The young always have the same problem — how to rebel and conform at the same time. They have now solved this by defying their parents and copying one another.” Quentin Crisp

This year has arguably no more impressionist yet realistic narrative than We the Animals. Based on Justin Torres’ autobiographical novel, it tells of three adolescent brothers from a mixed-race couple (she white, he Puerto Rican). They survive their parents’ volatile relationship by creating their own fantasy world or simply hiding from abuse.

The discursive plot allows their world to become interrelated set pieces of watching their parents work out their conflicts with director Jeremiah Zagar’s assured point of view frequently from the boys’. Occasionally levitation punctuates the story in a magic realism that gives a poetic gloss to the hardscrabble journey.

Among the many lovely angles is Ma (Sheila Vand) coddling the poetic Jonah (Evan Rosado), whose gradual discovery that he’s gay is subtly handled. His notes and illustrations hidden under his bed provide a punctuation for the rough world above the blankets.

Despite the family’s dismal blue-collar challenges in upper New York State, the boys show a resilience to give hope to an essentially unsettled life. The artfulness of the magical realism and Jonah’s writings lend a sympathetic cast to the proceedings. Zagar and co-writer Daniel Kitrosser offer a home not entirely grungy, in fact rather tidy, that suggests order can prevail.

Symbolically the water motif, with images of drowning and rainy cleansing, helps coordinate the despair and hope inherent in the story. Nick Zammuto provides just the right low-key music of sadness and kindness. In all, the film coalesces around the challenges of disadvantaged boys surviving the rain into the sun.

It’s not easy.

“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” e. e. cummings

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at