We wanted more.
There are a lot of hard truths within We the Animals. Describing patriarch Paps (Raúl Castillo) as “loving but unpredictable” in the press notes gets right to the heart of that complexity since a more apt description could be “abuser.” He’s a man with a hot temper who inflames his wife (Sheila Vand‘s Ma) until she gets physical as though he believes himself righteous as long as he can create a situation wherein he doesn’t initiate contact. Rather than contrition, his remorse comes in the form of abandonment—leaving her to languish within another chapter of their cyclically volatile relationship that began as teenagers and their young children (Evan Rosado‘s Jonah, Josiah Gabriel‘s Joel, and Isaish Kristian‘s Manny) to fend for themselves until the devastating process begins again.
It’s a hard truth because he is “loving” nonetheless. And to hear co-writer/director Jeremiah Zagar and author Justin Torres (whose novel Zagar and Daniel Kitrosser adapted) talk about their own adolescence and how what we see is actually semi-autobiographical for both, reconciling the fact that fire is able to warm and burn becomes crucial to understanding the tumultuousness of their youths. So don’t dismiss this depiction of Paps as one that lets him off the hook. Don’t watch Ma attempt to escape with her children only to turn the truck around as weakness either since there is a powerful love beneath the frustration of their impoverished life on oblivion’s edge. This story merely seeks to express it with objective authenticity and understand its role in the boys’ evolution.
This isn’t Paps and Ma’s story after all. It’s Jonah’s perspective that we’re thrust into as the youngest member of the family at ten years old. He’s the impressionable child Ma hopes to shelter more than she did the others. He’s the naïve and inquisitive one who sees his father’s influence turning Joel and Manny tough against the nuances of a harsh life. He’s an outsider yearning for inclusion, forever desperate to copy his brothers and yet also mindful to acknowledge their propensity to turn him into the trio’s pariah. It’s his compassion that brings a smile to both Ma and Paps’ faces when you think neither will ever smile again. It’s his innocence that saves Joel and Manny when their delinquent escapades land them in trouble.
And just like the secret journal he hides under the bed with scrawled words and scribbled drawings in crayons (animated throughout with a sense of anguish spewing forth from stick figure mouths in pain), the film progresses as a series of visually poetic vignettes. Each scene is a glimpse into Jonah’s emotional state, his eyes capturing moments of curiosity, anger, lust, and fear. Sometimes he’s the one in need of protecting and others have him putting a blanket over his tried mother asleep on the couch. Sometimes he’s struggling to handle the yelling he hears in the distance after his father tells him to exit the car and others he’s watching the tenderness of an embrace. For him love becomes violence, passion, and porn mixed in equal measure.
It’s this confusion—the duality between toxic masculinity and tearful despair as shared by Paps—that leaves Jonah on the fringes. He doesn’t know if he can talk to anyone about liking the men on a friend’s bootleg VHS of porn channel advertisements more than the women. He doesn’t know any other outlets for his insecurities and yearnings than the notebook he hides beneath the boys’ shared bed. So he watches, joining in when necessary and escaping when not. Where a ditch Paps digs is seen as an act of creation and an outlet for anger to him and his older sons, Ma and Jonah see it as an oasis with which to enter and leave the noise of life behind if only for a few glorious minutes.
The youngster is trying to find a place in this world he’s unsure will accept him. Not only are the faces he sees in the neighborhood white like his mother’s (his own skin darkened like his Puerto Rican father), but also the idea of men being forceful and strong proves too pervasive to ignore. Joel and Manny become two of the most interesting characters of all in how they so easily transform from quiet kids attempting to cope into revelers laughing at and adopting the machismo they’re unwittingly taught is birthright. They witness Paps’ aggression towards Ma and his boss and follow-suit with Jonah as their target. Rather than comfort their father when he hits rock bottom, they scream, “No more tears!” while Jonah confronts the obvious contrast.
We move from brief moments of joy to those of tense uncertainty and we hope Jonah will come out the other side better rather than worse. But even though Zagar tells We the Animals from his vantage point (with some gorgeous cinematography by Zak Mulligan that’s as kinetic and exciting in quick cuts as it is full of existential dread and nervousness when cropped to show heads at the bottom and endless possibilities of empty space above), he leaves some revelations until the end. This is intentional since Jonah’s ultimate truth shouldn’t be leaned on as his core motivation. It shouldn’t be why he rejects what the others are doing because what they’re doing is wrong regardless. Their actions are their burdens to bear, not his.
Everyone involved projects this truth as the hardest of all. The duplicity of Ma and Paps can be difficult to watch thanks to Vand and Castillo’s refusal to pull emotional punches. By not letting them lose their edge in forgiveness, we can respect that they’ve stayed together despite everything for a reason. Their tough love therefore drips down to influence Gabriel and Kristian’s performances, kids becoming teenagers with a rebelliousness instilled via role models unable to provide an example of healthy love. It’s then Rosado’s youth and identity that insulates him on a level all his own, struggling with his desires against those he’s told to have instead. Only when exposed to endure fallout reinforcing his isolation does he recognize the divide separating them might never be bridged.