Jeremiah Zagar’s breathtaking adaptation of Justin Torres’ novel We the Animals begins gently, with the faint voice of nine-year-old Jonah (Evan Rosado) singing the classic hymn “I’ll Fly Away” in Spanish and coaxing his world into focus. The hymn’s lyrics will grow more hauntingly resonant as the story progresses, but as the narrative begins, this quiet, hopeful song quickly gives way to the chaotic noise of Jonah’s daily life, one filled with ample rambunctious familial love, but also stricken with uncertainty, violence, and relentless, threatening poverty. This tension between his hushed inner life and the clamorous outer buzz around him permeates Jonah’s childhood, and Zagar’s film wavers thrillingly between muted, hopeful dream and roaring, hopeless nightmare.
Jonah and his older brothers Joel (Josiah Gabriel) and Manny (Isaiah Kristian), the adorable “animals” of the title, spend their days making up rowdy games, waking their night-shift-working parents way too early, and scrounging for extra food at the local convenience store and in neighbors’ gardens. These playful pre-teens, just on the cusp of understanding the desperation of their surroundings, are searching for, in the words of wide-eyed Jonah, “More”: more noise, more places to put their abundance of energy, more opportunities to test the limits of their budding masculinity.
Zagar draws astonishingly natural and assured performances from his three young actors, and though the earliest scenes suggest a brotherly closeness that is beautiful to behold, it is easy to tell from the outset that there is something different about Jonah.
While the boys accompany one another through their unruly existence, all cherubic smiles and lean, lanky bodies, their barely grown parents, white Ma (Sheila Vand) and Puerto Rican Paps (Raúl Castillo), struggle to support the family, respectively spending lonely hours on a factory line and at a security desk. When home, their relationship with the boys is warm and loving, while their connection to one another is mercurial and mysterious.
That the audience is forced to view these yearning parents and their volatile relationship through the eyes of their curious, confused children is the film’s most consistently powerful tool. Hints are dropped, tears are shed, bruises are revealed, but Zagar only offers as much information as would be apparent to the most innocent eyes, leaving the details shrouded in shadow so the audience has to make connections amidst the disorientation, just as his pint-sized protagonists must.
Zagar also makes effective use of Jonah’s wide-eyed narration, experienced both as tentative, hushed voiceover and through the crude drawings he secretly colors under his bed (which periodically burst into animated life on the screen, revealing Jonah’s imaginative and secret inner life). This is a coming-out story, both a chronicle of immature sexual liberation and of transcending the misery of one’s reality, but it is less a triumphant feel-good fairy tale than it is an ambiguous allegory, suggesting the freedom that potentially awaits a queer child growing up amidst poverty and patriarchy, even as it makes no promises of how that child will sustain the freedom once it’s found.
Powerful images abound and often surprise: an unexpected kiss leads to surprising self-realization, a late-stage discovery pits Jonah against his brothers and parents in a devastatingly raw battle both existential and physical, and even if Jonah’s path remains enigmatic as the credits roll, Zagar’s sensitive and stylized film makes one message clear: Dreams can turn into nightmares, but nightmares can also give way to dreams, and the shimmering hope for transformation involves both knowing where you’ve come from and where you need to go, appreciating the ground you’ve walked on and knowing when to fly away.