In 2011 a film came out which was perhaps the most hotly anticipated movie of the 2010s: Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. I remember the anticipation for it: the trailers looked great, the buzz out of Cannes was intense, and Malick had pretty much never disappointed previously, at least not in my book. Finally on that faithful summer day I went to see the movie and… I liked it but didn’t love it. It was kind of a weird feeling, I was bedazzled by the film’s crafts and was fascinated by the film’s aims but then by the second half it just kind of felt like it wasn’t going anywhere. There were just these endless passages of kids playing in the woods and the various conflicts and family dynamics at the center of it felt like they were left sort of unresolved despite a lot of the Sean Penn sections implying a degree of catharsis that never really connects with the rest of the movie. Upon repeat viewings I warmed to the movie but not entirely, in many ways it’s something I appreciated a macro level (I appreciated the vision) and on a micro level (damn near every shot was gorgeous) but which failed for me on the levels that lay between in which it is meant to act as simple drama. So why am I talking about this seven year old movie now? Well, in part it’s because that movie’s influence has loomed large in the years since its release and no film has quite seemed as much like an echo of Malick as the debut feature from director Jeremiah Zagar called We the Animals.
Set in update New York the film looks at a Puerto Rican family consisting of a mother (Sheila Vand), a father (Raúl Castillo), and three brothers. The film largely focuses on the youngest of these brothers, Jonah (Evan Rosado). Early on we see that Jonah is the only of the three brothers who can’t swim, which establishes as a theme that he’s a little different from his more rough-and-tumble older brothers Manny (Isaiah Kristian) and Joel (Josiah Gabriel). The family is not very wealthy and the relationship between the mother and father is rocky to the point of being violent at times. Jonah’s one escape from this occasionally rather sad life are the cartoons he occasionally draws late at night in secret for fear that his family would not understand them.
Indie debuts are often autobiographical, and this one sort of is as well even through it’s not based on the childhood of its director and is instead an adaptation of a novel by a guy named Justin Torres and is loosely based on his childhood. The writer/director of the film is Jeremiah Zagar who is young but who isn’t entirely a novice as he’s been making short films and documentaries for over ten years. That experience shows as he has a clear grasp of how to make a confident film with a consistent tone and some fairly striking imagery. Compared to 95% of English-language films this is fairly stylistically bold and yet I can’t quite help but feel like there’s something a bit passé about it. It’s not that there have been some massive number of films told from a child’s perspective via Malickian camera movements and occasional forays into magical realism, but there have been enough like Beasts of the Southern Wild, Summer 1993, and to some extent The Florida Project and even Beasts of No Nation, that the stylistic choice here doesn’t have quite the impact it might have had last decade. That isn’t to say it isn’t still fairly compelling of course
We the Animals is certainly not much of a plot oriented film. If you were to describe the story of the film to someone you would spend more time telling them the gist of it than you would recounting a series of events that lead from one to another. Instead this is more of a character piece but it’s a character piece about someone who doesn’t have that defined of a personality by virtue of his being a ten year old. We know that Jonah is a bad fit with his brothers, and late in the film we get some insight into why, but aside from the fact that he’s depressed by his family situation I’m not sure we ever really get that much out of him. This is perhaps the same problem I had with The Tree of Life back in the day; it was beautiful, it captured a feeling, but at the end of the day there didn’t quite seem to be enough meat on the bone to make a feature film fully engaging. Of course that movie had certain advantages over this one, namely the fact that it invented this style rather than followed it and it also had greater ambition in its sweep. We the Animals has its moments of magical realism but it certainly never stops to recount the dawn of time in full detail and while the filmmakers involved are very talented they aren’t quite Terrence Malick and Emmanuel Lubezki and on a scale of “pure cinema” this can’t really compete. So what we’re left with with We the Animals is a movie I certainly admired for its craft and what it was going for but which just didn’t seem to quite have that last narrative hook that would really grab me. It’s certainly a movie worth seeing but I’m not sure it quite grabs that extra bit of import that it needs.
*** out of Five