Justin Torres’ messy, heartbreaking novel “We the Animals” has been adapted for the screen by director Jeremiah Zagar, who co-wrote the script with gay playwright Dan Kitrosser. The result is a messy, heartbreaking, and compelling film full of hard-edged realism and moments of magical realism.
The story concerns three brothers, Jonah (Evan Rosado), Manny (Isaiah Kristian), and Joel (Josiah Gabriel), who live in upstate Utica with their volatile father, Paps (Raúl Castillo) and their fragile mother (Sheila Vand). The brothers are close, and mostly fearless, playing in the nearby woods and wrecking havoc in the house with their noise and wild antics.
Jonah, the film’s protagonist, is the youngest and most sensitive of the three. He crawls under their shared bed at night to secretly draw images that become animated from time to time (courtesy of Mark Samsonovich). He loves his mother and is enamored of his father, but his parents do not always get along.
“We the Animals” is an impressionistic film that focuses more on mood than plot. There are moments of drama — as when Paps leaves the family after an upsetting incident — but what are most palpable in the wake of his absence are the hunger, heat, and desperation the kids feel being left alone with Ma, who is depressed and won’t cook, or eat, or even get out of bed.
Zagar films many scenes in close-up, capturing the intimate details of the characters as they eke out a life. Chasing the kids through the woods and catching their faces as they hide behind a shower curtain as Paps tries to seduce Ma make for enchanting scenes that reflect the innocence and mischief of childhood. Cinematographer Zak Mulligan bathes the film in a natural light that offers brightness, if not exactly warmth, and this adds to the film’s burnished tone.
“We the Animals” digs into some heavier themes as the kids meet a nearby young man who shows them pornographic videos. Manny and Joel are excited by most of what they see but express disgust at a snippet of two men having sex. But Jonah is intrigued by this, and his same-sex attraction later comes out in his dreams and drawings. In time, he begins hoping to act on his feelings with the older neighbor.
“We the Animals” is more of a coming-of-age tale than a coming out story. There is a loss of innocence as Jonah and his brothers grapple with their parents’ fighting, but mostly the film lets the kids be kids, stealing food, slapping their father in humor and anger, and hiding under a sheet chanting, “body heat, body heat.” One of the best scenes in the film has the brothers mimicking their dad while they riding in the back of a flatbed truck, hanging over the sides watching the landscape pass by upside down.
The film’s magic comes from the cumulative power of the episodes that shape Jonah’s life. He panics in an early scene where Paps tries to teach him how to swim in a lake. And there is a curious scene where Paps digs a grave in the backyard, only to have Jonah lie on the muddy bottom and imagine himself floating above the ground.
The possibilities and anxieties of childhood are conveyed here, but the scenes also serve as metaphors for Jonah’s budding sexuality. His easy intimacy with his father and brothers is comfortable until it isn’t. When he kisses his mother full on the mouth, she shuns him. His fantasy about kissing the neighbor man might, of course, end badly if acted upon. This buried tension informs the film and provides a narrative thread that builds to the stunning conclusion.
The performances by the three kids are terrific; they have a camaraderie that feels natural, never forced. They play well together, and even the few times it becomes two against one it doesn’t remain that way for too long. Evan Rosado offers a remarkable debut performance as Jonah, his portrayal resonating in the way he carries his small body as if the weight of the world were on his shoulders.
In support Raúl Castillo (who shined in HBO’s “Looking”) impresses as Paps, a man who, always looking for a break, never quite does the right thing. When he talks about being stuck in poverty after one particular setback, it is devastating. In support, Sheila Vand holds her own against Castillo, being both tough and vulnerable as her life grows increasingly more unbearable.
“We the Animals” is a tough story, but also life-affirming. It races along like a child going every which way before stopping in its tracks and landing an emotional wallop.
WE THE ANIMALS | Directed by Jeremiah Zagar | The Orchard | Opens Aug. 17 | Angelika Film Center, 18 W. Houston St. at Mercer St.; angelikafilmscenter.com/nyc | Landmark at 57 West, 657 W. 57th St.; landmarktheatres.com