The Coming-of-Age Film We the Animals Is a Decidedly Queer Work of Art

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A report by Ecleen Caraballo for The Muse.

Justin Torres chose to open his debut novel We the Animals with a short, definitive statement: “We wanted more.” Those who’ve read the book won’t say anything close to that after seeing the film. Like the bildungsroman that it’s based on, the movie adaptation explores a young man’s journey into himself and away from the entity of brotherhood. A tender and raw look at machismo, race, sexuality, and the complications of a working-class family, the story—which as Torres describes, “is but isn’t” his—will feel familiar to many. Both the book and the film, an auto-fiction of sorts, pull from the author’s personal experience, including the discovery of his queerness via journaling, which led to his parents placing him in a psych ward.

We the Animals premiered in January at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it won the NEXT Innovator Award and was the only competition film shot on a 16-millimeter—a detail that makes the images feel raw. There’s a scene set in the back of a newly minted pick-up truck that’s far too small for a family of five and which leads to an argument between the parents. In this moment, the three brothers—Jonah (Evan Rosado), Joel (Josiah Gabriel), and Manny (Isaiah Kristian)—use their fists to create a beat against the vehicle’s rear and let their arms hang free from the edge. It’s one of the many muted moments in the script that opts for emotion over dialogue.

The movie, set in Utica, New York, is the kind of coming-of-age story that stands out from the rest because it dares to be vulnerable. The author’s attention to detail is evident in the book, where there’s level of bluntness and honesty that can only come from a child. With seemingly everything against his favor, Jonah learns the ways life can make you hurt, but also love.

Prior to We the Animals, the three young stars of the film weren’t professional actors. Director Jeremiah Zagar pulled Rosado—the youngest of the three—from a Puerto Rican Day parade crowd in Brooklyn. Raúl Castillo plays Paps, the Puerto Rican father whose violent, machista ways are the root of almost all the familial arguments. And Sheila Vand plays Ma, a sweet yet ferocious Irish-Italian mom who loves from a place of lack.

Castillo, best known for his work on HBO’s Looking, joined the project after being wooed by a script he says was written with sensitivity and beautifully captured the universal mess of childhood. He considered Paps’s character to be a unique “opportunity to really capture the complexity of what it is to be a human being.”

“One of the conclusions that I came to when I was approaching the character,” Castillo tells Jezebel, “was that one of the things I see in my own family and other families is that abuse is something that cycles down, and often times our parents are just trying the best with the resources that they were given and that they were born into. I think Paps was probably born into a world of physical and emotional abuse and he was just trying the best with what he had.” In acknowledging those layers, Castillo adds depth to his portrayal. The viewer is compelled toward some level of understanding not only for the three boys, but for Paps as well.

Throughout filming, Torres showed Castillo photographs and shared memories of his own pa, who inspired the character of Paps—and allowed Castillo to stay true to the author’s vision. For Castillo, working with Zagar, a director who was willing to experiment, was an added bonus.

“A lot of times in filmmaking, people make choices based on fear or completely based on money,” says Castillo. “Consequently, nothing really that exciting gets made a lot of the times. But Jeremiah was willing to be experimental and he was willing to take risks like cast non-actors and shoot over such a long period of time.”

Zagar, a first-time narrative feature director, made Castillo part of the creative process from the start. “So often actors get treated like cattle—you’re just expected to show up, say your lines, shut up, and go home. Jeremiah wanted me to have an opinion,” says Castillo. “He wanted us to participate in the process, and that doesn’t happen very often.”

When agreeing to hand over the rights to the film, Torres made a few things clear to Zagar—“One of them is that it is a queer film, and I don’t want that to be lost in any way,” says Torres. Despite being approached by others interested in adapting his novel, he chose Zagar—an inexperienced but eloquent artist who he knew from Zagar’s documentary In a Dream. The ultimate convincing factor was that “he never forgets about art even as it’s being very personal,” says Torres.

Zagar tapped his childhood friend Dan Kitrosser to join him as co-screenwriter and help tell the story of Jonah, a boy whose inner battle with his sexuality isn’t explicitly clear until toward the end of the book and film. In addition, artist Mark Samsonovich brought Jonah’s thoughts and fantasies to life with hand-sketched animated drawings.

The first time I read We the Animals, I rolled out of bed on a Saturday morning to grab the book from my desk for a skim before coffee, thinking I’d read a chapter to get a taste of what to expect. In less than two hours, I engulfed the entire text. When asked if writing his novel was that easy, Torres cackles. The book took him six years to write. Another seven years later, people are still talking about it, now with a focus on its cinematic version, captured artfully and faithfully adapted.

“I know a lot of writers of color who hate the adaptations of their books or feel ambivalent about it,” says Torres. “I think this is a really moving and interesting interpretation, and it can stand on its own—which was really important to me. I feel very lucky.”

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