Unconventional Coming of Age Drama Succeeds by Daring to Be Different
We The Animals begins with a series of battle cries as three young brothers, Jonah, Joel and Manny, run howling through the woods, shirtless and primal. They live with their mother and father in a bipolar environment where passionate love can quickly give way to domestic violence. Their Paps bounces from job to job and abandons his wife and children when tensions flare, often leaving the brothers to care for one another as their mother nurses her physical and psychological wounds.
The film is a coming of age tale of sorts, but it’s also a study of cycles. The opening strains of a Spanish-language rendition of I’ll Fly Away give way to the metaphorical flight that closes the film. The brothers’ chants of solidarity (body heat, body heat) fade into the final anguished cry of a single boy. And Paps’ tendency to solve his marital problems with his fists emboldens one of his offspring to rain down blows on his mother. Freedom and escape eventually fade, leaving responsibility and reality in their wake.
The focus of We The Animals is not its plot. The narrative meanders its way to a small-scale resolution. It’s a tone poem, an evocation of a mood, that’s very much in keeping with its subject matter. As we reach middle age, we remember the details of our childhoods less and less, but we seem to retain the feel of our youth. The echo of that carefree time reverberates in the back of our minds, even if the details elude us. We The Animals channels that feeling into its fragmented story-telling. The focus is not conventional story arcs, but rather the awakenings within its young characters, especially the sexually-confused Jonah.
We The Animals employs a variety of visual styles to a powerful collective effect. From grainy handheld verite to rudimentary animation to striking tableaux, the film is a visual collage, rendering the fragmented nature of memory on the screen. The narrative unfolds as if the camera is inside the minds of the three brothers and their childhood is being recreated from their collective memories in snippets and vignettes.
There are risks in saying that We The Animals may be an “acquired taste” for some film-goers. At face value, that sounds snobby, as if only the intellectual or sophisticated viewer will enjoy the film. That label may also have the effect of driving away potential audience members by implying that the film requires some cinematic heavy-lifting. In the case of We The Animals, neither inference is correct. The film simply asks that its audience remain open-minded, willing to abandon the three-act structure of the average movie to go on an unconventional adventure. It’s a strange ride, but in the best possible way.