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We The Animals: A Beautiful queer coming-of-age story in the heartlands of poverty
June 19, 2019
Based on the titular novel by Justin Torres, We The Animals is a story glazed by layers and layers of visual exuberance and social commentary. Whilst a subtle queer coming-of-age undercurrents the movie, its predominantly a study of an impoverished family, struggling to make ends meet with minimal financial prospects inextricably linked to their working-class status and ethnic background. Documentary filmmaker Jeremiah Zagar, turns his hand at fictional story telling, interpreting Torres’ book into this absolute gem of a movie.
Zagar’s non-fiction filming style encourages a more observational look-in; introspective silences, the harshness of poverty is juxtaposed by breath-taking beauty. Stunning visual montages, an abundance of flora and fauna, scruffy animation coming to life and a kaleidoscopic soundscape expose the mesmeric inner world of young boy Jonah (Evan Rosado), his jumbled-up thoughts and emotionally charged emotions, as he comes to grips with burgeoning homosexual feelings and intense fluctuating familial circumstances.
Young parents, Paps (Raoul Castillo) and wife Ma (Sheila Vand) along with three feral-esque boys Jonah, Manny (Isaiah Kristian) and Joel (Josiah Gabriel) live a hand-to-mouth existence in the American backwoods of upstate New York. Ma is of Italian/ Irish decent works in brewery, whilst Paps is Puerto Rican moves from one minimum wage job to the next. Originally from Brooklyn, the two married too young, their relationship is a volatile one. Their daily stresses and crippling financial struggles make them unable to parent properly, as well ramp up the tension between them. A revealing moment of painful exasperation comes when Paps exclaims ‘We are never going to get out of this’.
A physical altercation sends Paps packing, leaving Ma all alone with no help, descending into a paralysing depression, she alarmingly leaves her boys to completely fend for themselves. Despite the neglect and hunger, the three keep a happy-go-lucky, mischievous demeanour. Scrounging their bare kitchen for morsels of food, resorting to eating condiments from jar with their fingers or stealing sweets from the convenient store. Jonah is the runt of the litter, more sensitively inclined than his abrasive siblings, closer to his mother with strong artistic leanings, escaping in the middle of every night to nurture his hidden sketchbook of creativity, jotting down thoughts and sketches, an outlet for his vivid imagination and newfound desires.
The film’s queer theme is rather understated, since most of the screen time is occupied by the boys’ boisterous galivanting. Emerging mostly when Jonah is solitary, either when drawings or with the appearance of a young neighbour, a dorky looking teenager who takes a reciprocated shining to Jonah, appearing exotic with his blonde chin-length hair in contrast to Jonah’s dark features. They spend hours in his granfather’s basement, smoking cigarrettes, looking at videotaped sex adverts foolishly trying to get glimpse of genitals through the sprawled telephone numbers across the screen. The adverts and the neighbour’s grungey attire are of a handful of indicators that signals we are in past time, the 90s most likely. Their encounter reaches fever pitch with a quick stolen kiss, however it never amounts to anything more.
Zagar opts to show the story through vantage of the boys, all three played by first time actors, thus offers a lighter more playful ambience. For the price of intimacy and magnificence, comes the troublesome nagging sensation of reducing the seriousness of the family’s situation, further glamorising their poverty. Nonetheless, this still an incredibly beautiful and thoughtful film.
We The Animals is out in cinemas now.
Words by Daniel Theophanous @danny_theo_.
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