Unless my ears deceived me, you don’t hear the name of the young boy at the center of “We the Animals” until just before it ends — not that it’s a secret, but because to learn he’s Jonah, you must see him form an identity of his own first. At the start of Jeremiah Zagar’s energetic adaptation of Justin Torres’ novel of the same name, the nine-year-old (Evan Rosado) simply refers to himself as “me,” listing himself amongst his slightly older brothers Manny (Isaiah Kristian) and Joel (Josiah Gabriel), as well as his “Ma” (Sheila Vand) and “Paps” (Raul Castillo) in such a way that you assume the family is so close they must always be acknowledged together. Still, as “We the Animals” wears on, you realize how far apart they can be at times or how Jonah must distance himself to discover who he really is.
Passion can be blinding in “We The Animals,” in which Zagar immediately immerses the audience in the frenzied kaleidoscopic gaze of the young Jonah’s perspective, unfurling a Cuisinart-ed collection of sense memories to flood the screen as the decision to hold onto certain ones implies which ones will stick with the boy. Jonah clearly gravitates towards remembrances of how his family will huddle together for warmth, but also cannot shake when Paps gives his mom a black eye, a result of a volatile relationship that sets an example for their rambunctious sons, and lacking the comprehension to fully parse the two into right and wrong, the primal physicality translates into more of a give and take. Yet even though Jonah isn’t attuned enough to express sympathy for his mother – merely affection – he is in touch with the emotions furiously stirring within himself, particularly when he and his brothers meet a boy around their age named Dustin, who impresses them with explicit VHS-taped sex hotline ads he grabbed off the TV while he was in Philadelphia. While Manny and Joel are transfixed by the topless women, Zagar catches Jonah staring at the split-second shot of two men making out.
This moment doesn’t last long in “We the Animals” – few do, but it leaves as much of an impression on you as it clearly does on Jonah, planting a seed for all the other things he may need to question on the eve of turning 10. It helps that Zagar is perhaps even more aggressive than Jonah becomes in interrogating the accepted form of chronicling his coming of age, unsentimental in how blunt actions can be in a world where you don’t yet understand the consequences, but fanciful in expressing the imagination that goes into filling in the gaps, utilizing Czech-style animation to give life to the journal Jonah keeps of his often fatalistic thoughts and with editors Keiko Deguchi and Brian A. Kates, creating collisions of experiential ecstasy and anguish that build intrigue in how you see in the following scene (or even later) they push Jonah to react.
This formal daring may not come as a surprise to those familiar with Zagar’s work, particularly his 2009 portrait of his parents – literal mosaic makers Julia and Isaiah – “In a World,” but it proves refreshing as well as ideal for the story of a boy feeling his way around the world, with the director taking great pains to build a tactile experience, whether it’s the film’s use of 16mm or the heightened sensations he elicits through intense shot selection and sound design that sneaks into your ears almost conspiratorally. There’s less concern with a plot, as the biggest events in “We the Animals” involve Paps moving in and out of the house to the mixed emotions of Ma, but every moment in the film is made to feel like a formative one for Jonah, ultimately leaving an audience as fulfilled as he is when he finally finds his sense of self.
“We the Animals” shows at Sundance on January 27th at 2:30 p.m. at the Egyptian.