****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****
My Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
My Recommendation: SKIP IT. A derivative childhood trauma drama that is a pale imitation of other better movies.
We the Animals, written by Jeremiah Zagar and Dan Kitrosser (based on the book of the same name by Justin Torres) and directed by Zagar, is the coming of age story of Jonah, a young boy growing up with his two brothers in a tumultuous family deep in the throes of working-class poverty. The film stars Evan Rosado as Jonah with supporting turns from Raul Castillo (Paps) and Sheila Vand (Ma).
We the Animals is another in a long line of recent films about the difficulty of growing up in modern America, particularly when poor. Just off the top of my head I can think of Beasts of the Southern Wild, Moonlight and The Florida Project. I am sure there are more I am forgetting, but probably because those other films are forgettable.
We the Animals follows the same blueprint as Beasts of the Southern Wild, Moonlight and The Florida Project but also flirts with some of the same topics as this year's indy darling Eighth Grade. Like Beasts of the Southern Wild it tries to capture the magical imagination of a child under duress, and like Moonlight it tries to bring to life the struggles of one who is "different", and like The Florida Project, it eschews formal narrative structure in favor of a more free-wheeling story-telling that attempts to expose poverty as it really is, and like Eighth Grade it explores the minefield that is sex in pornified America.
If We the Animals had come out five years ago, it might be noteworthy because of its subject matter and style, but since it came out now after the aforementioned cavalcade of similar films, it feels decidedly derivative. There is nothing in We the Animals that we haven't seen already and done either slightly or distinctly better.
Director Zagar uses an impressionistic style to convey the inner life of Jonah, and those parts of the film are easily the best. Zagar and his cinematographer Zak Mulligan's use of animation, a floating camera and dynamic framing make the film at times visually stunning. Mulligan's ability to uniquely frame the mundane and turn it into something of depth is exceptional, and he captures some exquisitely beautiful shots.
Sadly, the film is not entirely impressionistic, in fact, the majority of the film (about two-thirds) is more stylistically conventional, and this is where the film struggles, so much so that it scuttles the entire ship. Mulligan's intermittent Malick-esque camera work brings life to a script that is dead on arrival and that fact is only more accentuated when the film tries to actually tell a story.
The cast of newcomers and unknowns does their best, but the acting is pretty underwhelming. Lead actor Evan Rosado is a charismatic kid and he pops on camera, but he is very limited in range and what he is able to do as an actor at such a young age.
Raul Castilla and Sheila Vand fall flat as Paps and Ma, and needed to be much better than they were for the film to really take off. Both of their performances were too one-dimensional for my tastes, and lacked an inner life. To be fair they certainly weren't aided by the rather shallow script.
We the Animals still could have pulled it off despite its cinematic imbalance but it makes a fatal error in its final act. There is a twist, hinted at throughout but which becomes explicit in the last quarter, that turns the film from an experimental-impressionist cinematic exploration into a rather banal piece of faux-edgy arthouse moviemaking. This plot revelation had significantly more artistic merit and integrity when left unstated, and by forcing the narrative to conform to such a conventional, 21st century after-school special theme, the weighty pretensions of profundity surrounding the film collapse and we are left with a movie that is resoundingly unsatisfying dramatically.
At the end of the day, because of the similarly themed and styled films that have preceded it, We the Animals feels trite, contrived, manufactured and manipulative to the point of exploitative. While director Jeremiah Zagar and cinematographer Zak Mulligan certainly show flashes of talent throughout, because of a weak script and cast, along with Zagar's uneven approach, the film never coalesces into a coherent and worthy piece of cinema. Sadly, We the Animals is not worth the time and effort to go see it in the theatre, but fret not, if you want to see a film about minority children growing up in poverty, you have a plethora of other options from which to choose.