Filmmaker Jeremiah Zagar’s whimsical and potent feature film “We the Animals” hit Netflix at the beginning of this year after its limited run in theaters. Based on the 2011 Justin Torres novel, the film follows Jonah (Evan Rosado) in a powerful debut performance. Jonah is the youngest of three brothers growing up in a mixed-race, working class family in upstate New York, stumbling along a turbulent road to self-discovery.
After an awards season of immense critical praise for the generic, feel-good examination of race and class that was “Green Book” and the limited, homophobic depiction of queerness displayed in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” this film much more successfully weaves together the intersections of these identities in the life of our young narrator.
Just as the three brothers explore an unfiltered, aggressive reality on their own, Zagar does not coddle the audience. Viewers are forced into the traumatic cycles of poverty and abuse, as the family constantly walks the tightrope of survival. The gut-wrenching rollercoaster of a relationship between the boys’ Puerto-Rican Paps (Raúl Castillo) struggling to maintain employment, and their white, factory-working Ma (Sheila Vand) is in itself an examination of the very real ramifications of class-based oppression. As they spiral into chaos, the boys are, at points, left to fend for themselves.
Zagar shines in aesthetic choices, such as the childish but brutal animated world of drawings in Jonah’s notebooks, which seamlessly break up and digest scenes of discovery and pain. His metaphor for the confusing nature of burgeoning sexual fluidity is displayed in a literally fluid environment; Zagar uses underwater shots to drown audience members in both the beauty and fear of queer realization, when raw masculine connection appears to be all these brothers have.
Just as Barry Jenkins’ 2016 “Moonlight” was a breath of fresh air in queer narratives, “We the Animals” boldly and gracefully expands the cinematic arena of coming-of-age films. While Jonah is profoundly impacted by his experiences of marginalization, none of these identity characteristics appeared as cliché, oversimplified themes, as we so often see in mainstream films. Instead, Jonah’s character is given a respect so often denied to people like him in film. He is complex: vulnerable and strong, deep-feeling and independent. He emerges as a refreshing image of queer, brown youth that the world of film desperately needs.