“We the Animals”: One of the Best Coming-of-Age Novels and Films of the Decade

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“Of course, at their best, movies are anti-literature,” Truman Capote noted in a piece on John Huston. “And as a medium, [they] belong not to the writers, not to the actors, but to the directors.”

Jeremiah Zagar’s adaptation of Justin Torres’s superb best-selling, We the Animals, both proves and disproves that premise. The film, shovels into the text, at times reenacting passages word for word. Other times, though, through the use of music, animation, handheld camera footage, and razor-sharp editing, Zagar creates a brilliant cinematic equivalent of Torres’s tome, a task much harder than you might imagine.

However, the final result is not a mere equivalence. The novel and the film together create a new whole, each enhancing the other in numerous ways. While one lays bare the inner life of a child foisted into a world of dysfunctional love, incomprehensible sexual desires, and a poverty that can “cage” one in for life with addictive sentences, Zagar douses the social realism now and then with wallops of high-flying magic realism.

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Ma (Sheila Vand) and Pa (Raul Castillo) get affectionate in front of the wildings in “We the Animals.”

The screenplay begins inside Jonah’s head on his tenth birthday (he is celebrating his seventh in the novel). The boy is part of tribal threesome that includes his older brothers Manny and Joel, a bevy of wildings often unsupervised by their Irish/Italian mother and Puerto Rican dad.

She, not understanding completely about sex, became pregnant at age 14.

“No one had explained sex to Ma when she was a kid — not the nuns at school and not her own mother. So when she asked Paps, ‘Can’t I get pregnant from this?’ Paps had lied; he had laughed and asked, ‘This?’ “

He, at age 16, was chatted into marriage.

A family accidentally started by two ninth graders in Brooklyn, a union licensed in Texas, and one now relocated to rural New York, searches for the will to persist, forming a battered unit of affection.

Now Ma works in a brewery. Paps sometimes as a security guard.

And sometimes Paps beats Ma. Also, the children. Then, without warning, he’ll disappear into the bed of another woman, who knows for how long?

When he returns, he’s asked, “Why did you come back?”

“Why’d you think?” Paps replies, his answer to most questions.

Jonah (Evan Rosado), Manny (Isaiah Kristian), and Joel (Josiah Gabriel) try praying with a TV evangelist.

Meanwhile, the lads rob stores and vegetable gardens to survive, tease neighbors, and are introduced to their first porno. A misconception of adulthood is thrust into their minds.

Narrated by Jonah, the pretty one, Ma’s special boy, the soft one, the secret chronicler of all that he sees and feels, his Homer-esque notebooks, which have been entertaining us, are kept concealed under his bedroom mattress. We know he’ll pull through all this because we have been watching his inner thoughts being revamped into a tale by an older Jonah who’s looking back with wonder at how he escaped a fate that caused his bros to become the father they both loved and hated.

With a superb cast (the boys are non-actors), sublime cinematography by Zak Mulligan, invigorating editing by Keiko Deguchi, and an ever-so-wise screenplay by Zagar and Daniel Kitrosser, We the Animals crowns 2018 as a year on film to remember.

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A wallop of magic realism.

We the Animals, having already been screened at the Tribeca Film Festival and Sundance earlier this year, opens this week in New York City.

Brandon Judell has published in The Village Voice, The Advocate, and 50 or so other outlets. He is currently a lecturer at The City College of New York.

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