Justin Torres’ We the Animals is a slim, lyrical gut-punch of a novel. Composed of vignettes that offer unfettered access to the interior life of their protagonist and little dialogue, it’s all formative feelings and scattered recollections that swing between the dreamily poetic and the painfully precise. These same qualities that make Torres’ semi-autobiographical debut so powerful would also seem to make it nearly impossible to adapt for the screen.
Director Jeremiah Zagar was determined to do so anyway, and he’s been open about first having tried and then discarded a more faithful translation from text to screen. Ultimately, he and fellow screenwriter Daniel Kitrosser, working closely with Torres himself, have emerged with a work that’s different in structure but remains true to the book’s essence—and one that stands apart from other coming-of-age stories as a result.
The heart of the film, which premiered at Sundance earlier this year, remains the same: A young Puerto Rican father (Looking heartthrob Raúl Castillo) and a white mother (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night star Sheila Vand) navigate financial hardships and their own tempestuous marriage while raising three boys in upstate New York. The sons, left mostly to their own devices and alienated from the white inhabitants of their industrial town, rely on each other for companionship and protection—until the youngest, Jonah, begins to find himself diverging from the expected path.
The book’s already-scarce conversations and exposition have been pruned back yet further, but cinematographer Zak Mulligan makes up the difference in visuals as vivid as Torres’ prose. Careful camerawork means we take in the world as Jonah does: We never see Paps hit Ma, but we do steal a shaky glance at the bloody tissue on the bedside table. And when Jonah’s imagination—or his trauma—takes him further afield, we follow, plunging underwater or drinking in gorgeous sweeping shots of wooded hills and open skies.
Zagar is a documentarian at heart, and it shows: The film is a closely, compassionately observed study of a boyhood that’s otherwise largely unsupervised. He elicits impressively naturalistic performances from his child stars (Evan Rosado as Jonah, Isaiah Kristian as Manny, and Josiah Gabriel as Joel), all first-time actors who shine in difficult roles. The three move in unison, almost indistinguishable at the outset, but gradually make their personalities known. Where one brother smirks at their father’s jokes at their mother’s expense, the other puts an arm around the visibly discomfited Jonah. And Castillo himself is magnetic, charming one moment and furious or wounded the next. When he struggles not to cry in front of his boys, it’s impossible for them or us to look away.
Throughout, the film is charged with a longing for another life in another place. Ma fantasizes about running away to Spain, where, she tells her sons, “all the boys look like you.” Jonah dreams of joining his teenage crush in Philly. Crucially, though, this yearning and the creeping sadness that comes with it are punctuated by real, intense joy.
The most potent scenes are somewhere in between. After Paps leaves with no plans to return, the boys play-act as their parents, roleplaying their reunion over the phone. Jonah, pitching his voice higher in imitation of Ma, informs “Paps” that she hasn’t been returning his calls because he “sounds so ugly.” But when they run out of banter, the ritual reveals itself as a poor substitute for real catharsis. It’s a game until, abruptly, it isn’t.
These moments have a profound impact on Jonah, and Zagar finds a neat way of expressing that shift. The journal in which the novel’s older protagonist “sharpened insults” against his family, cultivating “a facility with language and a bitter spite,” becomes something more abstract and more visceral in the hands of the film’s 10-year-old lead: reams of illustrations (animated by Mark Samsonovich) that turn from child-like doodles to a disturbingly primal scrawl as he struggles to process the reality of sex, violence, and his increasingly fraught family dynamic.
How the harshness they witness will be internalized or rejected by each boy becomes the crux of their respective emotional arcs. Here, though, the timeline of the novel—which follows Jonah from age 6 through to his late teens—is collapsed into a six-month period. The difference in age necessarily softens some of the actions and reactions that shape the plot, but Kitrosser and Zagar still want to illustrate the way their protagonist has begun to break away from the titular “we,” forcing them to rush his brothers’ adolescence while forestalling Jonah’s own. In doing so, they excise both the erotic element and the central tragedy of the novel: The encounter that establishes Jonah’s essential difference is so chaste it seems unlikely to ruffle even the mother who deems him “nine plus one years old” so he’ll never grow up and leave her.
The fact that Jonah is so young means the writers’ hands are partially tied when it comes time to land that final gut-punch, and the effect is to leave the film feeling somewhat unfinished. But maybe that’s part of the point—to depict a young life in which, for better or for worse, it’s unclear what comes next.