We the Animals adopts 10-year-old Jonah’s point of view. Reminiscent of Beasts of the Southern Wild and The Florida Project, We the Animals embraces the attentive, wary perspective of 10-year-old Jonah. Largely unsupervised, he romps with brothers Joel and Manny, neglected by their mother and their father who fight each other and their own vanquished mentality, trapped in a working-class world offering little beyond frustration alternating with occasional enjoyment.
Immersed in Jonah’s world, we viewers experience a jigsaw life. There’s terror when his father, called only Paps, decides Jonah will sink or swim in the nearby, upstate New York river, a nightmare that haunts Jonah. At other times, Paps and his mother, known as Ma, shower the boys with affection and bring them joy. Jonah has an added quandary as well, attracted to teenage neighbor Dustin who shares his video porn.
Based on the novel by Justin Torres, director Jeremiah Zagar shows a solid grasp of this boy’s challenging situation. His family grapples with economic problems: Ma works at a brewery bottling plant, Paps struggles at several jobs. Ma is white and Paps is Puerto Rican, though this exists more as a backdrop than a hurdle.
Cinematographer Zak Mulligan translates Jonah’s emotions into an expressionistic tour-de-force, saturating scenes with red, blue, yellow or green lighting. The camera races with the brothers, or, as often, it adopts Jonah’s viewpoint, watching and reacting. In moments of magical realism, he flies into the heavens or sinks into a muddy grave.
Nick Zammuto is equally adept, with the score interpreting moods into upbeat or sad, silent or sound-driven backdrops. Jonah’s amateur, stark pencil sketches by Mark Samsonovich illustrate a boy struggling to express his anxiety. The synchronicity among all these technical elements conveying Jonah’s limited point of view animates this sad snapshot. And as Jonah, Evan Rosado holds the frame with eyes that suggest depths of emotion.
We the Animals brings a boy’s complicated reality to vivid life without ever abandoning the honesty of his predicament, a striking reminder of what it is like to inhabit a child’s world.