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‘We the Animals’ shows a rarely seen – but realistic – depiction of the American family 

  • —Courtesy



Monitor staff
Thursday, September 13, 2018

Jeremiah Zagar saw something of himself in Justin Torres’s novel, We the Animals.

When the New York director picked up the 144-page coming-of-age story about three young boys growing up in an upstate multi-racial household in the 1980s, he sat in a cafe nearby the bookstore and read it in one sitting.

Zagar said Torres’s raw and non-judgemental approach to the story, which follows two loving but dysfunctional working class parents as they struggle to provide a stable home for their children, reminded him of the love in his own family.

“It was something messier and dirtier and less sanitized than what you typically see in Hollywood,” Zagar said.

Zagar, who had previously worked on short films and documentaries, said he felt called to translate that feeling onto screen.

The result was the film version of We the Animals, which has won several major awards at international film festivals – including Sundance – since coming out in mid-August. It will premiere at Red River Theatres in Concord on Friday.

‘We the Animals’

Zagar said something that was powerful to him about Torres’s writing was the texture and visceral descriptors that he said even upon his first read, made it possible to imagine how the story could play out visually.

The movie is shot on 16mm film and has a dreamlike feeling, with wide shots capturing the landscape behind the boys swimming with their father in a lake, riding in the bed of his truck or sitting with him outside their home getting haircuts.

At times when both of their parents are either physically or emotionally absent, the boys explore their neighborhood as they search their home for food and steal corn from a nearby farm and packages of food from a convenience store. They cool themselves by sitting in their refrigerator on hot days and huddle under a sheet in their room for warmth on cold ones.

Dialogue, when used, is used powerfully and purposefully. One key moment is when the father, “Pa” loses his job because he is caught bringing his kids to work during his night shift as a security guard.

“We’re never going to escape this,” he says when he comes home to tell his wife what had happened.

Untold stories

Zagar said some especially impactful moments for him while making the film were the ones that gave him the opportunity to explore some of the challenges of growing up mixed-race in America.

Zagar’s family is a mixed- race one, with him being Jewish and his wife being black, and he said he could relate to the struggles of Pa, who is Puerto Rican, and Ma, who is white.

For example, when Pa’s boss finds him leaving his shift with his three kids in tow, he tell the boys, “At least your only half as ugly as your daddy is.” Later, the boys’ mother asks them if they’d like to move to Spain, where there are other little boys that look like they do.

Zagar said he often thinks about the experience that his son, who is a toddler now, will have as he navigates the world with a split identity.

“We don’t talk so much about the identity of the young mixed children in America – where they find themselves culturally and who they are – I just felt Justin (Torres) did a beautiful job of dealing with that struggle,” Zagar said.

The film also has the opportunity to explore the queer awakening of Ma and Pa’s youngest child, Jonah. Zagar said it was meaningful to be able to capture the intersectionality of race and sexuality, and to be able to make a movie that portrays a queer boy of color – a narrative that is rarely explored in popular culture.

“It felt like a kind of love that I never get to see on screen and a portrayal of sexuality that is so rare,” Zagar said. “These narratives are missing from American cinema and I felt like this needed to be a part of the conversation.”

Zagar said he hopes anyone can enjoy the film who is interested in media that attempts to capture realistic portrayals of family, and all of the challenges and rewards that come with being a part of one.

“Familial love is a vital, epic universal topic that is important to me,” he said. “By understanding different specific versions of that love, it allows us to feel less alone. Ideally, this movie will make people feel a little less alone.”