When The Wild Rumpus Stops: 'We The Animals'

Aug 17, 2018
Originally published on August 20, 2018 10:29 am

We the Animals, Jeremiah Zagar's fever-dream of a movie, gets underway on a hot summer afternoon in upstate New York, with three shirtless, preteen boys running wild, the way kids do.

The youngest, Jonah (Evan Rosado), reads from a secret journal he scribbles at night, about wanting more: more noise, more muscles, more time with brothers Manny (Isaiah Kristian) and Joel (Josiah Gabriel).

The three boys are so inseparable they seem almost a single organism, bouncing off the walls, tearing across a field, baying at the moon, turning every flat object in the house into a drum ... and when all of that gets old, huddling under a sheet, whispering.

Childhood is a magical time for these three, if also — when the discovery of that journal leads to unintended revelations — a fraught time.

Based on Justin Torres' 2011, autobiographical debut novel, We the Animals seemed an unlikely candidate for film adaptation. The book is impressionistic, fragmented, deeply felt but nearly non-narrative as it tells of a working-class family's turbulent home life. Somehow, though, Zagar has found a way to let the film's scenes surface and recede the way memories do.

Scenes about breakfasts and truck rides, dancing, cuddling, and roughhousing in the care of a mixed-race couple who've moved upstate looking for a good life that hasn't materialized. Paps (Raul Castillo), a night watchman, is Puerto Rican; Ma (Sheila Vand), who works in a bottling plant, is white. They met when she was underage, and a dozen years later are still crazy in love.

But dead-end-jobs and struggling-to-make-ends-meet was never the plan, so sometimes they're not just lovers, but also fighters — she protective of the kids, he rough and tumble (or just rough) — which means the boys need to figure out what's happening when, say, Paps packs his things and takes off after one fight that leaves Ma bruised, and in the words of her sons, "purple ... crazy ... tore-up." That rates a note and an illustration in Jonah's journal, animated with Mark Samsonovich's scratchy pen drawings for the film.

That fight also leaves Ma too depressed to leave her bed for a week or so, which gives the kids a chance to eat themselves out of house and home, and then go foraging at a convenience store, in the woods, and on a farm, where a gruff but kind-hearted farmer gives them a hot meal, while glimpses of his striking blond grandson give Jonah feelings he doesn't quite know what to do with.

Filmmaker Zagar is a documentarian, making his first fiction feature here, working with youngsters who'd never acted before, and creating a dreamlike narrative where Jonah's carousing merges with his fantasies about adulthood, and his confusion over things his parents say and do — Paps loving and leaving; Ma loving and clinging.

"I remember your heart inside me," she whispers to Jonah as she hugs him close, "tickin' like a bomb."

That's quite the image, and applies equally to Jonah at age nine — ticking like a bomb with explosive sensual feelings, and the realization that there are ways in which he is not like his brothers.

We the Animals catches its characters as they are right on the cusp of the growth spurt that will propel them into their teens — into the years when they'll finally grow out of the feral joys of childhood. Grow, in the case of journal-keeping Jonah, perhaps to be a writer who'll try to capture in words this summer of wanting more – this summer when things began to change — and make it intense, scary and ecstatically lyrical.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A debut novel by young Latino writer, "We the Animals," made a splash in literary circles when it was published in 2011. An autobiographical story about preteen brothers and their turbulent home life, it seemed an unlikely candidate for film adaptation, but critic Bob Mondello says "We The Animals" has become a haunting fever dream of a movie.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: A hot summer in upstate New York, three shirtless boys running wild the way kids do. Jonah's the youngest, the storyteller...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WE THE ANIMALS")

EVAN ROSADO: (As Jonah) Us three.

MONDELLO: ...Scribbling in his journal about wanting more - more volume...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WE THE ANIMALS")

ROSADO: (As Jonah) Us kings.

MONDELLO: ...More muscles, more time with Manny and Joel.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WE THE ANIMALS")

ROSADO: (As Jonah) Us brothers.

MONDELLO: The three of them so inseparable they often seem a single organism - bouncing off the walls, tearing across a field, being at the moon, turning every flat object in the house into a drum, and when all of that gets old, huddling under a sheet, whispering.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WE THE ANIMALS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Body heat, body heat, body heat.

MONDELLO: Childhood is a magical time for these three, and a complicated time, too, as their sons of a mixed race couple who've moved upstate looking for a good life that hasn't really materialized. Dad's Puerto Rican and a nightwatchman. Mom's white and works in a bottling plant. Dead-end jobs struggling to make ends meet was not the plan.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WE THE ANIMALS")

RAUL CASTILLO: (As Paps) Shake it, papito, come on.

(LAUGHTER)

CASTILLO: (As Paps) All right. Now shake it like you're rich.

MONDELLO: While mom and dad are crazy at love, they're also fighters - she, protective...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WE THE ANIMALS")

SHEILA VAND: (As Ma) This truck - it doesn't even have enough seatbelts to protect your family.

MONDELLO: ...He, rough and tumble, sometimes just rough.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WE THE ANIMALS")

CASTILLO: (As Paps) OK. You win. You win.

MONDELLO: Left to their own devices, the boys have to figure out what's happening when, say, dad leaves after one fight that left mom bruised.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WE THE ANIMALS")

ROSADO: (As Jonah) Will you get up today?

VAND: (As Ma) How do I look?

ROSADO: (As Jonah) Purple.

JOSIAH GABRIEL: (As Joel) Crazy.

ISAIAH KRISTIAN: (As Manny) Tore up.

MONDELLO: That rates a note and an illustration in Jonah's journal, scribbled by flashlight after his brothers are asleep and animated with scratchy pen drawings as the film lets the scenes in Justin Torres' autobiographical novel surface and recede the way memories do. Filmmaker Jeremiah Zagar is a documentarian making his first fiction feature here, working with youngsters who'd never acted before and creating a dreamlike narrative where Jonah's carousing merges with his fantasies about adulthood and his confusion over things his parents say and do - dad, loving and leaving, mom, loving and clinging.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WE THE ANIMALS")

VAND: (As Ma) Promise me you'll stay 9 forever.

ROSADO: (As Jonah) How?

VAND: (As Ma) Simple, you're not 10, you're 9 plus one. Next year, you'll be 9 plus two.

ROSADO: (As Jonah) Why?

VAND: (As Ma) You be telling them that no matter how old you are, you be Ma's baby boy.

MONDELLO: She hugs him close.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WE THE ANIMALS")

VAND: (As Ma) I remember your heart inside me, ticking like a bomb.

MONDELLO: Ticking like a bomb, that's quite the image and applies equally well to Jonah at age 9, ticking like a bomb with budding sensual feelings and the realization that there are ways in which he is not like his brothers. "We The Animals" are about to grow up, grow to be men, grow, in the case of journal-keeping Jonah, perhaps to be a writer who'll capture this summer when things began to change and make it intense, scary, ecstatically lyrical. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.