Review: We the Animals

Manny, Joel and Jonah tear their way through childhood and push against the volatile love of their parents. As Manny and Joel grow into versions of their father and Ma dreams of escape, Jonah embraces an imagined world on his own. Directed by Jeremiah Zaga, with: Evan Rosado, Raúl Castillo, Sheila Vand, Isaiah Kristian & Josiah Gabriel.

Things start out like Kings of Summer (with a lot less privilege), wild young boys revelling in the sun, nature and a lack of parental involvement but it quickly devolves into domestic abuse and massive neglect. All of it unfolds through the perspective of the boys, the direction explores the abusive relationship with childish eyes; giving a strong, intense energy even to the point of becoming uncomfortable. It’s quickly clear that Ma has an over protective relationship with Jonah and creating the classic ‘baby of the family’ syndrome, being extra sensitive around him, making that slight but unmistakable degree of difference from his brothers; it’s a generic pattern of being the youngest child and nothing even slightly new. The only difference is the way it’s presented, the direction and cinematography making something that’s very intimate and down to earth.

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The film is a potent tale of unhealthy relationships between both parent and child, mother and father and how strongly the experiences of childhood affect the person you grow into, particularly in the ‘apple doesn’t fall far’ fashion. The story may be one that’s common but it’s incredibly supported by the animated illustrations, pushing harder on the child’s perspective and adding to its very personal energy, making almost the whole feature an entry to Jonah’s diary. That strength starts to weaken as the film tries to tell two stories, beginning with the abuse and neglect but then becoming about Jonah’s burgeoning sexuality, at an age where he’s too young to really know what he’s feeling other than curiosity. It handles Jonah’s journey from that moment bluntly, there’s no subtlety or grace, it’s clumsy and while it’s very possible to have your utmost sympathy for his character, it isn’t exploring that self-discovery in a thought-provoking or satisfactory way which is really disappointing given the intense and honest nature of the film.

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From that point it feels like things are being pulled in two different directions and loses focus which isn’t helped by some over the top theatrical effects that are entirely unnecessary, it may be trying to explore imagination but that’s much more successfully and subtly accomplished with the animation. Although the story feels split, the performances remain strong throughout, and in spite of the fact it can be a very mixed bag with child actors, each of them manage to give consistently modest, natural and genuine performances for the film’s entirety. Raúl Castillo and Sheila Vand each get their emotional moments to shine and don’t disappoint but it’s a shame these are quite brief. Both actors have had roles to show their talent, including in this film, but unfortunately neither have yet to find their breakout performance and sadly, won’t find it here.

We the Animals is an intimate and sad unfolding of neglectful parents, domestic abuse and all around unhealthy relationships with intense performances. It’s also a film which tries to explore a time of self-discovery and sexuality but it doesn’t quite grasp the story it’s trying to tell, it does an admirable job but ultimately can’t quite effectively bring to screen Jonah’s story. It could have achieved more but in its defence it’s always a difficult task to adapt a complex story from novel to screen and is still undoubtedly worth watching.

Verdict: 6/10 | ✯✯✯

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