We the Animals

I caught this movie a few days before it left the Angelika Film Center, but noticed it’s going to be returning to San Diego at the Digital Gym. It’s a coming-of-age film based on Justin Torres’ first novel, which won him an NAACP Image award.

It’s a semi-autobiographical story about three boys growing up in rural, upstate New York, with very little adult supervision. It’s unfortunate that so much of this story reminded me of other films that have come out the last few years (Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Florida Project and Moonlight come to mind).

Three Latino brothers, Joel (Josiah Gabriel), Manny (Isaiah Kristian), and Jonah (Evan Rosado) watch as their parents are loving and affectionate with each other…and as they fight with each other. Mom (Sheila Vand) then goes into deep depression that has her staying in bed for days, as well as nursing her black eyes. Their dad (Raul Castillo) then disappears for days, sometimes months. The kids are resilient, though. One of them draws, colors, and writes his musings down while hunkered underneath the bed.

They shoplift for food they bring home and cook, and on occasion take it from nearby farms. The director (Jeremiah Zagar) sometimes gives you an interesting, child’s perspective of what’s going on. It just isn’t a very engaging film, and you get tired of close-ups and shaky cameras, as if that’s creating some artsy film. A better narrative would’ve been more welcome.

When Jonah’s drawings come alive on screen, the crude animation…is just annoying. I can think of other movies that have done that so wonderfully (the criminally underseen Daniel Radcliffe romantic comedy What If, and the early Robin Williams movie The World According to Garp).

There are also a lot of tonal shifts that don’t help things along.

It’s a shame because the performances are solid (surprising, considering the children aren’t actors); you just need more than nuance and a few poetic moments on screen to make a compelling picture.

2 stars out of 5.