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We the Animals
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by Jay Seaver

"Different from the rest."
4 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2018: Though coming-of-age stories often seek to tap into some sort of universal sort of experience, the best ones are often the most specific, and "We the Animals" is very specific indeed. It's an intriguing, well-observed story of growing up different in just about every way, heightening how very alone a kid can find himself feeling.

It's easy for a Puerto Rican family to feel a little isolated in Utica, New York; their small house is on the outskirts, and as summer vacation is starting, they aren't mixing much with their non-Latino neighbors. Inside that little house, Manny (Isaiah Kristian), Joel (Josiah Gabriel), and Jonah (Evan Rosado) share a bed, though Joel will often retreat underneath when the other two are asleep, drawing constantly even though he doesn't have blank paper to work with. Joel's the baby, with his mother (Sheila Vand) telling him not to grow up. It's a common refrain, but Manny and Joel are becoming more like their father (Raúl Castillo) every day, and as Ma's "dentist emergency" after upsetting Paps on a family outing to a nearby swimming hole suggests, that's not always a positive.

The filmmakers spend just enough of the movie showing the brothers as a single unit to get the audience to think of them that way for a bit; Jonah may be the source of the narration and have his own hobby separate from the others, but the three always in such close proximity, often shirtless in the heat so that logos or designs don't become things a viewer can hook character on. This doesn't last all that long, but it does give one a sense of Jonah beginning to break away, and how attitudes can be passed on through osmosis: Jonah seldom articulates his differences, and Paps never instructs Manny and Joel. Director Jeremiah Zagar and co-writer Daniel Kitrosser this sort of machismo as an illness that seems to jump from father to son, with Jonah's mother trying to inculate him with the imperfect means at her disposal, hoping he's got a tolerance.

From looking at Jonah's face, one gets a strong feeling that he does. It's a nice bit of work for a child actor, a performance that differentiates itself from the others just enough to show the audience what is going on, emotive without loud crying and screaming. Josiah Gabriel and Isaiah Kristian take similar but opposite routes as the brothers, developing the right sort of cockiness over the course of the film but never shown with sneers taking over their faces. There's almost plenty of good time given to the adults, with both Raúl Castillo and Sheila Vand playing vibrant, engaging parents at the start but also going different directions as the film goes on: Castillo gets to show Paps's dark side while still mostly showcasing the loose, inviting body language that makes it hard for a kid to doubt his basic good nature, while Vand's Ma gets fragile and breaks down, the sort of disengagement that doesn't look like much until you see another actor clearly trying to look checked-out.

It's a nice-looking film; Zagar and cinematographer Zak Mulligan shoot on film and lt the grain work as a shortcut to signify memory, but more than that, they capture a specific sort of sunlight at the lake when life seems perfect and full of potential, and a distinct chill in the winter when things seem to be at their lowest points. Zagar and the crew are also good at showing how things are stretched without making the lack of money the focus or an explanation for how people are; it's instead good, specific detail

The film does away times get a bit precious, with bits that seem a little rote if you have seen a fair amount of coming-of-age stories, but its impressive use of background details and tendency to watch rather than describe make it better than most..

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originally posted: 06/21/18 02:47:44
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2018 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Chicago Critics Film Festival For more in the 2018 Chicago Critics Film Festival series, click here.

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  10-Aug-2018 (R)



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