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  We the Animals This Boy's LifeBuy this film here.
Year: 2018
Director: Jeremiah Zagar
Stars: Evan Rosado, Raúl Castillo, Sheila Vand, Isaiah Kristian, Josiah Gabriel
Genre: Drama
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: Jonah (Evan Rosado) remembers, a life back in the eighties when he was a little boy and living with his parents (Raúl Castillo and Sheila Vand) and two brothers in a small house out in the woods, where they struggled to make ends meet and the boys were often left to explore the world on their own without the supervision, or indeed the guiding hand, of an adult. Jonah did not know any better than this existence, but even he was aware that his existence was not quite as stable as it should be, and though his father was fun for some of the time, for others he was not present at all, and when he was he and his mother would fight like dogs, usually with Ma on the receiving end...

For some reason indie movies, no matter where they are hailing from, are obsessed with the coming of age genre, and the deluge of such drama showed no sign of being stemmed well into the twenty-first century. Therefore, it was necessary to do something different to stand out, and while some did, such as Eighth Grade, Booksmart or mid90s, for others there was not much more to their endeavours but the novelty of watching little kids or teens going about their days in a manner that placed you in the privileged position of knowing more than they did about what life had in store. This could either make you feel benevolent or anxious, depending on the direction of the movie.

Alternatively, you could wonder what you were doing watching a little brat who did not have the boundaries and responsibilities necessary to be a member of polite society, and there were points in We the Animals that the three tearaways would test the patience, coming across more like little shits than adorable tykes. Crucially, however, director Jeremiah Zagar adapted Justin Torres' bestselling novel with a mission to explain, or at least investigate with a view to understand, as his diminutive hero realises he is not like his brothers, and this world of masculinity he is being pressured to join may not be the most useful for him, or indeed in any way enjoyable to experience.

Was that sufficiently different to avoid the coming of age clichés? We were in gay drama territory here as Jonah comes to terms with the fact he is attracted to other boys, but that could be queasy when you were asking such young actors to perform such emotions, and equally may be taken the wrong way if you included the matter of sexuality and what turns the characters on. This included Ma and Paps, who almost have sex in front of their sons in the bathroom, carried away because they forget they can be seen, and an older boy who Jonah watches age inappropriate pornographic ads taped off late night television with. Combine this with the fact the three kids were often seen parading around topless, and the more suspicious would have ample reason to question the motives of the filmmakers, though if you investigated you would be reassured there was no way these boys were being exploited.

Nevertheless, material like this, and its appeal, is undoubtedly in the eyes of the beholder, and Zagar skirted attracting an unhealthily minded audience that was only tempered by the harshness of the storyline. Despite the dreamy 16mm photography of Zak Mulligan that went some way to evoking an atmosphere of the past in a manner that seemed unquestioning in its nostalgia, the individual scenes where, say, the brothers gingerly wake their mother in bed only to see the bruises on her face that they cannot process, or Jonah's swimming lesson in the local lake where he nearly drowns, brought you up short. In fact, you could be pondering that Jonah's upbringing was far from idyllic to the extent that he was being abused, not sexually but emotionally as Paps is prone to outbursts and neglect. At the denouement (that isn't, really), the kid's drawings are revealed to the family, his escapism that exhibits a troubled mind, and there are no concrete answers as to whether he ever came to terms with any of this, his upbringing, his sexuality, his isolation. All we have is the vague hope if he is able to look back, he can do so from a better place. Music by Nick Zammuto.

[There's a booklet and quite a few arty featurettes on Eureka's Blu-ray.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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