When thinking of coming-of-age films it’s hard not to imagine those 80’s classics like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, or even recent cult favourites such as The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Way Way Back or the recent, critically acclaimed Eighth Grade. These are films that have an often comedic, uplifting nature whilst also having a darker, more powerful side, portraying life lessons, good and bad, in an often interesting and entertaining way. But with director Jeremiah Zagar’s first time feature film, he shuns much of the comedic nature of the above and instead uses powerful and dramatic performances and other intriguing ideas to bring this particular tale of growing up, youth and self-discovery to life.
Based on the novel by Justin Torres, We The Animals follows three young brothers; in particular Jonah (Evan Rosado) whose journey seems a little more complicated than his brothers as they grow up surrounded by a financially struggling, frequently fighting mother and father (Shelia Vand and Raul Castillo). We see the boys close bonds as they huddle together and hang out together, having to share a bed due to the financial constraints of the family. What two of the brothers don’t see is Jonah climbing under their bed in the middle of night to read what looks like a self-made diary/journal chronicling his thoughts and feelings. This is obviously something very close and personal to Jonah and as time goes on and we see the boys’ progress into adolescence we get hints as to what is in that diary and why he is so secretive about it.
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A part of We The Animals that makes it unique within its genre are the short animated sequences, like pictures being drawn on a page in front of us, which are meant to help us delve deeper into Jonah’s mind; excerpts from his diary brought to life, in a way, perhaps. This is an effective idea by Jeremiah Zagar and brings something unique to the storytelling in a film that at times threatens to become a bit pedestrian, but is suddenly brought back to life by these animated drawings and images. As we see Jonah’s personal journey progress with the meeting of local teenager Dustin (Giovanni Pacciarelli), and his feelings becoming more clear, these sequences and his actions push his destiny to the fore in quite a powerful and interesting fashion.
Also, well worth mentioning are the strong performances in We The Animals. In particular Evan Rosado, Isiah Kristian and Josiah Gabriel as the brothers Jonah, Manny and Joel – all first-time actors putting in strong performances. Evan Rosado as Jonah in particular, a young actor in a brave and challenging role, does a fine job here and with a part in the upcoming Joker movie, his star is hopefully on the rise. Aside from that, Raul Castillo and Sheila Vand are solid as Paps and Ma. Sheila Vand (Argo, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) is brilliant as the struggling mother, just about holding it together in a volatile relationship. It’s a powerful and emotional performance.
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With a background in documentary film-making, Jeremiah Zagar has used some interesting shots in We The Animals to create a realistic looking family unit, but mixing it with the animated picture scenes as well as few dream-like sequences make this an immersive, at times powerful, at times gripping and at times interesting portrait of a struggling family, with themes of growing up and self discovery. Winner of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival Innovator award, it might not have you glued to your seat the entire time and it might not be as uplifting as some of the other titles mentioned above but We The Animals is different to those in many ways and is still a well made coming-of-age drama looking at complex but timeless issues and worth a watch for even the most casual film fan.
Extras for this release include a short film entitled ‘Animationism’ by the artists responsible for We The Animals‘ visual sequences; an introduction to the trio of actors that play the brothers in the film; a making-of documentary; an interview with writer Justin Torres; and a booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic Wendy Ide. These and more create a worthwhile package for this release.
We The Animals is released on 16th September on dual format edition DVD/Blu-ray courtesy of Eureka’s Montage Pictures range.