Movie Review: We the Animals (2018)

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Made with an artistic sensibility befitting of its narrator, Jonah (played by Evan Rosado) – the youngest of three tight-knit brothers growing up wild, free, and frequently unsupervised in the wilderness of upstate New York – this lovingly crafted, visceral valentine to the highs and lows of childhood is based on the acclaimed eponymous novel by Justin Torres.

Inspired by the work of Ken Loach, the first fictional effort from documentary filmmaker Jeremiah Zagar, who cowrote the film with playwright Dan Kitrosser, relies primarily on a cinéma vérité (or fly-on-the-wall) approach to chronicle the daily lives of Jonah and his brothers as well as the often tempestuous relationship of their Irish-Italian Ma (Sheila Vand) and Puerto Rican Paps (Raúl Castillo).

However, with flashes of magic realism as Jonah's secret diary of drawings and notes come briefly to life onscreen as well as a richly inventive soundscape that punctuates the imagery in unexpected ways, We the Animals makes it known right from the start that this is one experimental coming-of-age journey the likes of which we haven't seen.

Yet, developed over the course of more than four years, the fact that Animals still feels as buoyant, uninhibited, and surprising as it does now in its 2018 release is a testament to the amount of effort put into the film behind-the-scenes by both a committed cast of actors including its three young first time stars as well as its talented crew.

A budding sensitive and creative youth, over the course of the movie, we watch as Jonah struggles to find his own identity in a family where he doesn't fit as easily into the masculine example set by his volatile father as his older brothers do, while also wanting to break free from his loving mother's protective shell.

Pieced together from the sights and sounds of life as seen and heard from the eyes of its youngest protagonist, although the film's freewheeling narrative challenges viewers reared on traditional storytelling who naturally want to know more about the characters at the heart of the movie, Animals is stitched together with the same care, warmth, and attention you'd find in an heirloom quilt.

Feeling like family, frequently we find ourselves wanting to reach into the film to rescue, feed, and shield its characters only to be charmed or startled by them moments later. Like looking at old home movies and wishing you could go back and redo things (while at the same time feeling as though you are suddenly living inside your memories), We The Animals might alternate from painful to delightful in tone but it's always bittersweet.

Reminiscent of holding up a mirror to life only to realize moments later that we're still dreaming, although the award winning picture is hindered slightly by its ambitious nature, Zagar's expressionistic portrait of an artist as a very young man has to be seen to be believed.

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