The bonds of familial love are strained to the breaking point, tugged in several directions, in the lyrical movie memoir, “We the Animals.”
Based on the semi-autobiographical novel, Jeremiah Zagar’s moving indie film takes us into the lives of three tightly-bound siblings, clinging to the joys of pre-teen childhood in rural Pennsylvania even as they endure the trauma of their parents’ turbulent marriage.
“Us three” is how Jonah (Evan Rosado) always refers to he and his brothers. Born just a year apart, they’re a rough and tumble crew — shirtless, roughhousing tweens romping in the woods, raiding a neighbor’s garden, sleeping on the porch, making pretend tents under the covers (“Body heat! Body heat!”), diving into the ol’ swimmin’ hole.
But Jonah is the youngest, the sensitive one. He slips out of the bed they still share and by flashlight, writes and draws in a journal he keeps stashed in the box springs.
“Sometimes, we wanted less…Less work. Less noise.”
Maybe he’s speaking for all of them, but his older siblings (Isaiah Kristian, Josiah Gabriel) are anything but quiet. Jonah’s talking about their parents.
Paps (Raúl Castillo) met Ma (Sheila Vand) when she was 14. He wasn’t. They married, stayed together, got deep into a family — but life is a struggle, even when you’ve got a house and a car.
It’s the ’80s, and that car is a clapped-out Pacer. They’re working two menial jobs, juggling child-care as they do. The boys sometimes go to Paps’ night-watchman workplace, sleeping bags in hand as the old man drinks beer and punches a clock.
There’s a lot of love in this house. Ma dotes, especially on her littlest. “Promise me you’ll stay nine forever.” Paps cuts their hair, teaches them to dance and tries to teach his youngest (and wife) how to swim the only way a macho, working poor Boriqua knows how — letting them sink.
“How else you gonna learn?”
The trauma of that sticks with Jonah, constantly flashing back to “drowning” in confusion over events in the house, the ways he’s the odd boy out in “Us three.”
Ma? She’s enraged that her oaf husband could have drowned one or both of them. The screaming match that follows ends with his admitting to the boys he had to “take her to the dentist” last night, that maybe he was “punching on her a little.”
They haven’t processed that when he abruptly leaves, as he must. Kids don’t know what to do about a mother who won’t eat, won’t get out of bed. They revert to being “the Animals” of the title.
Parents who fight and reconcile this way make kids grow up too fast, learning too many of the wrong lessons.
“You think that’s funny when men beat on your MOTHER?”
Zagar filmed this tale in the gauzy twilight of memory, the hand-held camera chasing the boys on their explorations, finding the wonder in lying on your back as street lights whisk by above the bed of the pickup truck you’re riding in. He never lets the reality of what he’s portraying break from the child’s view of it.
“Is it our fault?”
“It’s always our fault.”
The characters may begin life as tropes — “sensitive” boy turning out the way sensitive boys do, “violent Latin” father, martyred mother.
But as Zagar turns Jonah’s voice-over narration into incantatory repetitions of phrases — “Body heat, Us three,” as he has Jonah’s rough, revelatory, sexually curious and explicitly violent drawings animated to life, as the first rifts between the brothers become clear even as they learn the value of presenting a unified “team” to the outside forces pounding on them, “We the Animals” sets itself apart from other run-of-the-mill “coming of age” stories.
This is “The Florida Project” set in Pennsylvania, a memoir both brilliantly specific and depressingly universal.
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual content, nudity, language and some underage drug and alcohol use
Cast: Evan Rosado, Raúl Castillo, Sheila Vand, Josiah Gabrial, Isaiah Kristian
Credits:Directed by Jeremiah Zagar, script by Daniel Kitrosser, Jeremiah Zagar, based on the Justin Torrés novel. A The Orchard release.
Running time: 1:33