As the debut feature from a documentary filmmaker, Jeremiah Zagar’s We the Animals certainly contains morsels of that aesthetic style.
Everything from handheld, fly-on-the-wall camera movement to the seemingly authentic close-ups that are meant to prescribe sincere emotion on the faces of his characters are drawn out to ponderous lengths in exploring the confused and chaotic young life of a young boy. It also incorporates a poetic sweep, filling the screen with impressionistic images and the desire to capture an orange sunset just because it’s there.
Sometimes this style works. Other times, as is the case with this film, it only serves as an avant garde gimmick to flood the story with a visual style that’s cropped from the book of sacred Terrence Malick. And since even Malick’s more recent films have become laborious chores for the people who once crowned him king (myself included after The New World, which remains one of the best films of the 21st century), We the Animals suffers from this syndrome of hiding its basic emotions behind a wispy swirl of voice over, impressionism and, at times, stray magic realism.
Droopy aesthetic aside, We the Animals does contain some wonderful acting when it decides to focus there. Coming of age in a hardscrabble upstate New York family with two older brothers and parents who waver between outward carnal displays of affection and knock-down fights behind closed doors, young Jonah (Evan Rosado) takes all this in, trying to decipher and decode the feelings that well up inside him once he meets an older neighbor and has to endure the endless break-ups and reconsideration of his parents.
As the father and mother, Raul Castillo and Sheila Vand provide ferocious performances. Puerto-Rican Castillo, all brawn and New York masculinity, comes and goes in young Jonah’s life. He’s a brute, yes, but there’s also an incredible tenderness in the way he tries to bring up his boys the best way he knows how, which includes not leaving them on their own when he has to work nights, which results in yet another violent confrontation in his life when the secret gets out. Because the film is adapted from a novel by Justin Torres about his own upbringing and Zagar chooses to construct a more connotative style, We the Animals is suspect on the timelines, but anyone can see how the formative, primal years of a young boy would be uprooted by the coming and going of someone he so obviously idolizes.
In the void of his father, Irish-American mother Vand tries to hold things together but fails, succumbing to depression that leaves Jonah and his brothers mostly on their own. It’s in this diversion that We the Animals follows them as they shoplift, create their own dingy games, such as playacting what a sensual, apologetic phone call between father and mother would sound like, and Jonah’s own growing attraction to things and people decidedly different than his brothers.
As if filmmaker Zagar doesn’t trust the story’s inherent power, all of this is sewn together with a distracting hand that feels unnecessary and even detracts as the film wears on. Moments of raw poignancy — such as when mother Vand packs the boys up in a pickup truck and tries to escape the violent hands of her husband, only to end up stopped in the middle of the road and desperately asking the young ones what to do — are buttressed against dreamy, floating moments that hardly reconcile each other.
It’s hard to define why this style of filmmaking works so beautifully in the hands of some (like the early films or David Gordon Green or David Lowery) and not-so-well in others. We the Animals reaches for something majestic but comes up short, which in and of itself is worth something.
We the Animals opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, September 7 at the Angelika Film Centers in Dallas and Plano.