Humanizing the Animal from "We the Animals" (2018)
We the Animals (2018), directed by Jeremiah Zagar, is based off the eponymous, semi-autobiographical novel by Justin Torres, which captures the characterization of three brothers growing up in a working-class home in Upstate New York. The film’s cinematography appears in a dream-like montage, like a collection of home videos, offering a nostalgic presence set in dark greens of wilderness and backdrop blues. Aside from the vivid representation of rural Upstate New York, disordered homes, and hardships turned into children’s adventures, the film offers storyboard animations of Jonah’s (Evan Rosado) drawings.
On my first viewing of We the Animals, the film’s picturesque landscape absorbed me into a mood of still unknowingness despite the dissonant motion of the characters. Scenes privilege the emotional changes of the characters on screen, more so than a direct plot. The familial chaos, and the physical feuds that ensue between Ma (Sheila Vand) and Paps (Raúl Castillo) is the foreground’s disorienting display. The slow split growing between Jonah and his elder brothers, Joel and Manny, is alarming and unexpected, seeing as the audience experiences the boys coming-to-age as a trio, or a small herd.
In the beginning of the opening scene, the small herd is huddling in a large bed with a blanket over their heads, lighting their faces with a flashlight, muttering “body heat body heat,” a signifier of the young boys’ desire to be close to one another. The brotherly love is easily recognizable, as the children comfort each other after their parents fight by reenacting their parents’ phone conversation, and also when they cover one another’s backs as they steal snacks from a shabby, 80’s convenience store lot.
It is after their stunt at the convenience store that leads the children running through a corn field, where they encounter an elderly man, who invites the boys in for food as an alternative to them ruining his crops. The elderly man introduces the boys to his grandson Dustin, whose slight actions change the course of the film, taking viewers into a different territory. Dustin is portrayed a kid who doesn’t do much else than chill in his grandfather’s basement watching movies. One of these movies is a pornographic film, which was stolen from Dustin’s home in Philadelphia. Joel and Manny concentrate on the women, while Zagar’s direction zooms in on Jonah’s face focused on two men being sexually active before the movie comes to a close. What both Torres’s novel and Zagar’s film do, is represent the actualization of sexuality in youths, which accepts the reality rather than flock from the fear of knowing that some children begin to explore their sexual awakening before puberty. Zagar capture Torres’s characterization of Jonah’s confusion, isolation, and most importantly, Jonah’s transition into a more realized “self,” just as all children experience as they approach their young adulthood.
As I think about We the Animals, I find the film to be revolutionary for the realistic and in-depth representation of coming to terms with one’s own sexuality. We the Animals reminds me so much of Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, since both Torres and Lorde take control over their characters’ childhood, delving into their queer feelings, attempting to understand the revelation of their characters’ sexuality, and in the process, normalizing the experiences that a character goes through to be able to perceive a knowledge of their own, growing personhood.
Inevitably, when speaking about a queer person’s experience, backlash arises from people who simply don’t understand. For instance, after Jonah is shamed in front of his entire family for his drawings revealing his queer, sexual urges, the innocent chant, “body heat body heat,” becomes a fainting memory for Jonah. The herd disassembles. Joel and Manny shun their little brother, and at night, instead of cuddling up with his brothers, Jonah’s figure fades into the black backdrop.
Unlike the novel’s epilogue, Zagar’s end doesn’t take Jonah into adulthood, but rather captures young Jonah’s still, unknowing face, staring at the dark brown branches. Viewers leave on a final overview of Upstate New York’s wilderness, and in the snow, a storyboard shadow flies over trees and pines.
Overall, I appreciate the representation of exploring a queer Latinx’s coming-to-age experience within a working-class family in Upstate New York on film. Zagar’s adaptation of Torres’s novel is one I waited to watch for about two years, and I wasn’t one bit disappointed. We the Animals is a vividly stunning film, with a realistic representation of turmoil and trauma from living in an unstable economy, to being a child coming to terms with knowledge about one’s sexual feelings, to being a queer youth, who ostracized and shunned. The storyboard image of Jonah flying over the browning branches, is a freedom that comes with being forced into isolation, as he knows his path is a possibility unlike his brothers.
Originally published in OUTCAST: A Journal of Queer Midwestern Poetry (Out-of-Print)