All is tranquil at the beginning of We the Animals before it evolves into a gentle, aching coming-of-age story for 10-year-old Jonah (Evan Rosado), who will soon learn that you have to take the moments of joy wherever you can find them. Up till now, it seemed like everything was joy.
Jonah, an introspective boy who keeps a secret diary that’s mostly pictures, lives with his two brothers (barely older than he is) and their parents in upstate New York in about the early ’90s. Ma (Sheila Vand) and Pops (Raul Castillo) were high school sweethearts who got married too young, and their loving but tumultuous relationship has grown untenable. Pops moves out, Ma spirals into depression; the boys, enjoying an otherwise carefree summer, are neglected.
In the midst of this, they meet a slightly older boy, Dustin (Giovanni Pacciarelli), the grandson of a neighbor, with whom Jonah becomes smitten (not that he understands his feelings). Dustin shows the boys a porn tape. Jonah’s brothers are probably no better equipped to handle it than he is, but the movie’s not about them. Jonah has been exposed to sex and other “adult themes” too early and lacks sufficient guidance to process it — and that’s aside from his burgeoning non-heterosexuality — hence the journal, hence everything else that ensues.
First-time feature director Jeremiah Zagar, adapting Justin Torres’ semi-autobiographical novel, handles sensitive subjects with discretion and grace. The film is full of wonderful, evocative details: the boys role-playing their parents on the phone, cracking themselves up with their impersonations; a lazy Sunday afternoon when the whole family is quietly lounging in the sunny living room; the boys’ barefoot, shirtless summertime romps against the backdrop of there not being any food in the house. Nick Zammuto’s moody electronica score and Mark Samsonovich’s simple animations contribute to the idyllic tone of this lovely, heartbreaking gem about queer awakenings and misspent youth.