Words matter. This week, the United States president called a woman a “dog,” in an attempt to reduce her to something contemptible and subhuman. Meanwhile, in the country’s most fortunate art houses, meticulously scripted, micro-budgeted Sundance discovery “We the Animals” flips such language on its head, deploying the word “animals” not as an epithet but as a mark of uncommon empowerment as it celebrates the complicated identity of three biracial kids — brothers Manny, Joel, and Jonah — who may as well be a single alien organism: Siamese triplets fused at the hip, or a kind of rare 12-legged octopus.
Clumsy like puppies, giggly like hyenas, these three half-white, half-Puerto Rican boys seize the opportunity of Jeremiah Zagar’s stunning, semi-impressionistic film to define themselves, coming off as something more than human, not less, so much so that by the end, it seems entirely reasonable that one of these children might sprout wings and fly away. Reading the slender, semiautobiographical novel that inspired it — a tiny masterpiece of exquisitely described, wonderfully evocative adolescent memories — one can be sure that novelist Justin Torres chooses his words incredibly carefully.
Each of Torres’ chapters vividly presents a scene from 9-year-old Jonah’s youth, in which he and his rambunctious older brothers ran wild in upstate New York, feral children half-ignored by their impulsive Puerto Rican father and depression-prone mom (the film shot mostly in working-class Utica, a fading former mill town with acres of wilderness engulfing its rural homes). At first, the book seems like a string of freshwater pearls, each one more perfect than the last — describing impromptu dance parties, tough-love swimming lessons, no-alternative slumber parties on the floor of Dad’s night job, and so on — until suddenly, in its final pages, it jumps forward in time to describe how Jonah, seemingly inseparable from his brothers, inevitably began to separate himself and why.
In those moments, it may as well be the puertorriqueño “Moonlight” (the epilogue describes now-adult Jonah living in New York, an escapee of the bittersweet childhood contained in its earlier portions), but that isn’t the form Zagar has taken in his adaptation, co-written with Daniel Kitrosser — although perhaps Barry Jenkins’ film has paved the way for a story as intimate as this to find a mainstream audience. One can hope. Zagar’s challenge is to find the cinematic equivalent for Torres’ words, to translate into image and sound the feelings described on the page.
For this, Zagar (a director of documentaries and shorts, here making his narrative feature debut) doesn’t invent a form so much as reverse-engineer what has emerged in recent years as a new kind of poetic norm. Picture the gritty, 16mm texture of David Gordon Green’s “George Washington,” the woozy, fragmentary glimpses of idealized youth seen in Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” and the ecstatic swell of music and occasional touches of magic realism borrowed from Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild” — all of it embellished with lively colored-pencil animation (credited to Mark Samsonovich) meant to suggest the primitive drawings contained in Jonah’s private journals.
“Body heat! Body heat!” the boys chant at the outset, huddling under a single blanket late at night, all bare skin and fogged breath. Jonah’s family may have been dysfunctional, but contained in this dynamic is the sense of acceptance and connection he will spend the rest of his life trying to re-create: the all-for-one-and-one-for-all camaraderie of three musketeers who found in each other the support they lacked at home. If the opening scenes are idyllic, that reverie doesn’t last for long, allowing harsh reality to creep in — albeit filtered through Jonah’s youthful naiveté.
We sense how badly the fair-skinned, green-eyed lad (remarkable first-timer Evan Rosado) wants to believe, say, that Ma’s badly bruised face is the result of a trip to the dentist, rather than a brutal flare-up of Paps’ unpredictable temper. Jonah’s parents are played by Sheila Vand, the vulnerable leading lady in “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” and relatively macho-acting Raúl Castillo, of HBO’s “Looking.” The couple come across as both archetypal and specific, as the film requires, while Rosado and co-stars Josiah Gabriel and Isaiah Kristian form the essential unit at the film’s core.
As if by magic, Zagar has managed to foster a sense of familiarity among the boys that sells the illusion that they’re related, further reinforced by the editors’ trick of including moments of spontaneous, unscripted tomfoolery between the young actors. That strategy serves to fill the ellipses between scenes, taken directly from Torres’ novel, with the sense that they have spent their entire lives together. Eventually, Jonah must find his own path, which he does via a sexual awakening that’s all the more poignant when one realizes that he had no models, even if the abrupt third-act consequences feel sudden and somewhat clumsily exaggerated.
Such stories can often be painful, yet that’s anything but the takeaway here. At a moment when powerful white men are constantly putting others in their place, it’s a privilege to witness a person of color push back and take control of his own narrative. Looking back, Torres may see only animals, but from where we stand, it’s a profound sense of humanity that makes Zagar’s film such a special coming-of-age offering.