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We The Animals **

by Ruben Rosario

Rural upstate New York in the 1980s is the setting for this episodic, self-consciously lyrical coming-of-age drama that's too enamored of its aesthetic and too timid about its subject matter to get into the head of its young protagonist of mixed parentage.  

Is it worth $10? No  

Ma and Paps fight a lot. Their screams reverberate through the modest house, making it difficult for Jonah and his two older brothers to get a good night's sleep. And so Jonah, about to turn 10 but having witnessed things no child his age ought to, escapes in his drawings. As the half Puerto Rican/half white artist scribbles away, skies form in a burst of blue, people stretch across the page as black forms in constant motion. And Jonah? Shh, don't tell anyone, but Jonah can fly.

“We the Animals,” an adaptation of Justin Torres' semi-autobiographical novel about self-discovery and growing up poor in upstate rural New York in the 1980s, yearns to take flight along with its young protagonist, but it's held down by an aesthetic that can be described as indie Terrence Malick. Director/co-screenwriter Jeremiah Zagar has created an attractive, free-flowing look in an attempt to convey Jonah's thoughts visually, but it ends up blocking the viewer's access into the boy's emotional journey. What could have been a potent portrait of familial strife remains surface deep, a tone poem whose visual pirouettes congeal into a wearying drone.

Just like in Malick's “The Tree of Life,” an endlessly roving camera follows Jonah (saucer-eyed Evan Rosado) and his siblings Joel (Josiah Gabriel) and Manny (Isaiah Kristian) as they while away the hours in the shadow of their domineering but sensitive dad (TV vet Raúl Castillo) and their loving but withdrawn mom (“Argo's” Sheila Vand). Zagar and screenwriting partner Daniel Kitrosser are dead set on avoiding the domestic abuse clichés that tend to pepper these stories. The film's loose structure treats the bursts of violence as episodes adrift in a cycle that also features nurturing from both parents. Castillo's unnamed patriarch, his intense pornstache belying his capacity for deep tenderness, is hardly a monster. And despite dealing with serious subject matter, the film never slips into issue-driven moralizing. Kudos to them.

But in so doing, the characters surrounding Jonah remain distant, out of viewers' reach. The film, for instance, takes pains to portray the boy's tight-knit relationship with Joel and Manny as instrumental to his upbringing, but the older brothers never register as individual characters. They're cyphers, little more than nondescript vessels of bravado and budding machismo. Considering the duo's pervasive presence in Jonah's life, there should have been a lot more to them than window dressing and, eventually, plot devices. Also, it's condescending how the movie keeps reminding viewers that Jonah is good looking in ways his brothers are not.

The contrast in the boys' personalities is important, especially when it becomes apparent, at roughly the halfway point, that Jonah is attracted to boys. It's an aspect that reportedly figures prominently in the novel, yet is here relegated to the sidelines for a sizable chunk of the film's running time. Instead, it's introduced as an unspoken, elephant-in-the-room element. Rosado conveys the fear in Jonah's eyes as the realization dawns on him, particularly after meeting the grandson of a nearby farmer who shows the boys his hidden VHS stash of porn. Joel and Manny are thrilled upon first seeing the gyrating bodies, but are disgusted when suddenly confronted with the sight of two men having sex. That cutaway to a fascinated Jonah is all too brief.

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And that, in a nutshell, is what ultimately cripples “We the Animals.” Zagar is so busy creating an evocative atmosphere that he neglects to take viewers into Jonah's headspace. The drawings in his diary/sketchbook, brought to life by animator Mark Samsonovich, are meant to clue you in as to how Jonah processes what he sees every day, but they lack the insight the filmmakers are clearly aiming for, especially when they refrain from lingering on the more sexually explicit artwork. Similarly, and this is a crucial drawback, Zagar cuts away from moments that, from a narrative perspective, should have served as a payoff toward which the film was building, including a climactic confrontation between Jonah and the rest of his family. The director loses his nerve when he ought to man up.

In other words, “We the Animals” peddles the kind of aggressively pretty naturalism that Malick's work is often accused of being. But the surfaces in his work are a physical representation of the character's spiritual travels, and those who accuse the auteur of being pretentious are not seeing the forest for the trees, because they are anything but. It would please this reviewer to report Zagar's film, ravishing yet malnourished, follows on Malick's footsteps, but it's too occupied Sundancing the viewer into submission to make you give a damn about these boys who are forced to grow up too quickly. It's smothered by its own beauty.

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