"We the Animals" feels like something conjured out of memory and magic, a poetic, often ecstatic re-creation of childhood that captures its ungovernable pleasures as vividly as its most threatening terrors.
Less a linear narrative than a collection of pivotal moments in the course of a year in 10-year-old Jonah's life, the movie is never just one thing. Working in the impressionistic, intuitive tradition of Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" and David Gordon Green's "George Washington," writer/director Jeremiah Zagar immerses viewers into Jonah's interior life, where he grasps for ways to put his inchoate feelings into some kind of workable order.
The dreamily watchful Jonah, portrayed in an astonishing turn by first-timer Evan Rosado, is the youngest of three brothers living with their parents in a cramped working-class household in upstate New York. With their parents either working, fighting or playing out volatile sexual games, the boys are mostly left on their own, leading a feral, wild-child existence of invented private languages, knowing glances and the tribal code of secret sharers.
Jonah is the sense-maker within the chaos, writing furiously in a hidden notebook and punctuating the text with slashing, crude illustrations of violence and tenderness. Those images form a recurring motif in the movie, which has been adapted from Justin Torres' novel by Zagar and Daniel Kitrosser.
It would be easy — and unforgivably clichéd — to describe Ma (Sheila Vand) and Paps (Raul Castillo) as impoverished, immature and inattentive, although through certain lenses they're all three. She works in a bottling plant, he's a security guard, and although they're one miscalculation away from financial disaster, they're keeping it together.
Their relationship is similarly paradoxical: After a particularly bruising fight, Paps leaves, and Ma takes to her bed for days on end, with Jonah and his brothers, Manny (Isaiah Kristian) and Joel (Josiah Gabriel), fending for themselves with cold cereal and, eventually, scavenging from a neighbor's garden.
Eventually Paps is back, acting as if nothing is wrong, sweetly trimming his youngest son's hair and tumbling into an affectionate wrestling match with the entire brood.
It's through Jonah's translucent green eyes and quiet narration that we come to understand how every experience he has — with his older brothers, with Ma and Paps, with the neighbor's affectless but magnetic grandson — helps form his evolving ideas about love, desire, masculinity and his own worth.
Zagar allows his camera to capture adolescent indolence, languid rays of light and moments of unbearable cruelty with the same spontaneity and tact. He builds a world that is simultaneously deeply authentic and dreamlike — the perfect combination to express a child's deeply felt but inherently distorted view of the universe he inhabits.
That universe is one of security that coexists with peril, love that is engulfing and unreliable and exuberance that is tempered with a tinge of apprehension. "We the Animals" is a spirited but sobering portrait of the artist as a young man using any means at his disposal — words, images, sensations — to process a confusing and contradictory world.