Young boys fend for themselves in We the Animals

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      Starring Raúl Castillo. Rating unavailable

      Moonlight meets Malick in this lyrical, low-budget character study, centring on a boy who finds himself—in both senses—inside an at-risk family.

      The animals of the unpunctuated title are a self-contained tribe of three young brothers stranded in upstate New York, with parents who aren’t up to the task. Episodic happenings over unspecified time are told from the perspective of the smallest boy, Jonah (Evan Rosado), about 10 when things begin. He looks to slightly older Manny and Joel (Isaiah Kristian and Josiah Gabriel) for protection, and needs it. Their unnamed father (Looking’s Raúl Castillo) is prone to violence, and Ma (Sheila Vand, of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) responds by zoning out, leaving the boys to fend for themselves for weeks at a time.

      When not searching for crackers and soy-sauce packets, or raiding nearby farms for vegetables, Jonah hides under his bed, writing gibberish in a journal also filled with increasingly grotesque drawings, some of which burst into life on the screen. His murmuring voice-overs, dropped after a while, recall the first-person narration of the much-lauded 2011 Justin Torres novella on which this is based. These Tree of Life–like incantations give us some very sketchy background to dire situations that are nonetheless honeyed by nostalgia for childhood in a vaguely defined time before digital media.

      Indeed, the only electronics seem to be an old princess phone and boxy TVs showing old movies or the odd porn tape. The homes here are bereft of culture, and of hope, but not of colour and light. Cinematographer Zak Mulligan finds the lyrical sweep and darker undertow of private spaces, small-town streets, and the local swimming hole.

      Unfortunately, writer-director Jeremiah Zagar, in his feature debut after making many far-ranging documentaries, relies on visual moods and the compelling presence of nonprofessional child actors to give the story shape and meaning. From the setup, you expect the mixed-culture marriage—Dad is from Puerto Rico and Mom is white—to be a factor, along with the revelations of Jonah’s sexual ambiguity. But the characters mostly remain ciphers, with the sole female figure exerting little influence on dreamlike events. Even the animation is static, hitting the same notes again and again. In short, there’s a lot of talent on display here, although it remains regrettably immature.