In queer film studies, one must accept that the definition of the central concept of interest — “queerness” — is perpetually in flux. It simply gestures toward meaning and is not confined to the same empirical categories that are associated with “gay” and “lesbian,” as Eve Kofsky Sedgwick has claimed. Instead, it is a word of radical openness, actively defying objectivity, while directly addressing the disenfranchised — sexual or otherwise — whose marginalized identities are realized, or even liberated, through ineffable expression.
As a visual medium, cinema possesses the ability to translate queer experience into something palpable. Consider, for instance, the early films of Terence Davies, which directly address the queer experience through mise-en-scène, often eschewing expository dialogue. Director Jeremiah Zagar seems to follow along with this spirit of queerness in his newest feature, We the Animals. Tapping into both documentary and coming-of-age modes, this is a film about memory and re-creation, gesturing towards some fluid state between them.
Of a piece with films like Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows (2004), Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011), and Davies’ own The Long Day Closes (1992), We the Animals takes place at a transitional moment in a young boy’s life. The boy, Jonah (Evan Rosadon), is about to turn 10. He has two brothers, Manny (Isaiah Kristian) and Joel (Josiah Gabriel), slightly older, but still in the throes of youth. Together they live in Upstate New York, in a small working-class home with Ma (Sheila Vand) and Paps (Raúl Castillo). The parents do their best to make ends meet, but this often results in them being unavailable to their children. That seems to be fine with young Jonah, though; he has his brothers, after all. The three share a bond that is almost tribal, complete with all the rituals and private languages that term implies.
In Jonah’s voiceover narration, he speaks of “we,” referring to himself and his brothers as if they are one entity. That titular pronoun is somewhat misleading, though, as this is ultimately Jonah’s story. A passive protagonist, Jonah’s gaze wanders from father to mother to his brothers, but the film itself never strays far from Jonah’s point of view. When Jonah turns 10, his perception of the world expands, and the film adapts accordingly. Paps is not only charismatic and tender; he’s also volatile and aggressive. Ma takes to her bed for days, maybe even months — the timeline is intentionally muddled here. Jonah can no longer connect with his brothers as easily as he used to. As they grow more like his Paps, taking on conventionally masculine attributes, Jonah begins to turn inward and away from his family, differentiating himself from the tribe.
We the Animals is an elliptical film that often shies away from classical narrative techniques, favoring impressionistic storytelling and voiceover narration. Admittedly, there are moments in the film where the narration undermines the power of the film’s images. Occasionally, these monologues are too on-the-nose, but such incidences are few and far between. The film more than makes up for these moments with its wild use of form. For example, when Jonah starts to turn away from his family, he becomes even more focused on his drawings. Trying to understanding himself through art, he scribbles with anxious fury, reveling in a melancholic ecstasy of sorts. In these moments, the film breaks into animated sequences, composed of Jonah’s own art, where he tries to reflect the world back to himself, grasping for something for which he can’t yet find the words.
Another high mark for Zagar’s film is in its approach to eroticism. There is a high-strung ecstacy, undoubtedly frightening and almost brittle, that runs through many of the sexual scenarios that young Jonah encounters. In capturing this elusive feeling, Zagar transports the viewer into Jonah’s headspace, into the mind of a child wrestling with his first sexual stirrings. For these scenes alone, We the Animals earns a spot among this year’s best films.
Notably, We the Animals differentiates itself from the recent Lean on Pete (2018). That is to say, Zagar’s film actively avoids delving into poverty porn or presenting itself as a morality play. When Jonah’s perspective widens and shadows are cast on the film’s other characters, it deepens their portraits, presenting these family members as being equal parts nurturing and destructive. Zagar challenges viewer to see these people as multifaceted, perhaps even paradoxical, and thus rooted in the real world.
Some films ask questions, whereas others make statements. Every once in a while, films like We the Animals sneak onto local arthouse screens. Such films find their truths in the visceral. Turning away from language, they reflect life back to the viewer through expressions only possible in cinema.