Beauty can give even the grittiest tale magical realist wings. So it is with debut director Jeremiah Zagar’s drama about a queer, artistic child coming of age in a dysfunctional family. ‘We the Animals’ is an adaptation of Justin Torres’s ’80s-set novel told from the point of view of the youngest of three brothers growing up in the wilderness of upstate New York. Jonah (first-time actor Evan Rosado) is a scrap of a ten-year-old, born, with brothers Manny and Joel, to his neglectful Puerto Rican dad (Raúl Castillo) and Italian-American mum (Sheila Vand).
Zagar imbues his storytelling with a shivery impressionism through astute editing, animations and the rambunctious energy of non-actor children who often seem like one beast with three heads. Shooting on film, cinematographer Zak Mulligan captures natural splendour as the boys run wild. The sight of sunlight bouncing off water evokes a bliss at odds with a narrative arc mired in abuse, depression and poverty.
Vignettes gradually build up to a picture of domestic precariousness. Vand and Castillo have archetypal parental roles but embody them with panic and a touching weariness – they are both gods and monsters to their children. ‘We the Animals’ elevates the hopeful message that moments of relief are available even to those in dire straits.