With X-Men, Men in Black and Godzilla all providing an avalanche of CGI , a film like We The Animals can be a welcome change of pace. However, just as CGI doesn’t guarantee a good film, a lack of it means a solid story, action and cinematography is required. What WTA offers is a beautifully told intimate story.
Based on a book of the same name, WTA focuses on Jonah, a 10 year old mixed race Puerto Rican/American boy and his two older brothers Manny and Joel. As the only mixed race boys in the neighbourhood, they have the attitude of them versus the world. Almost inseparable, they are synchronised and have one anothers back. They live in poverty with their mother and father. We see the gritty story of these boys growing up as their parents have problems, ranging from poverty and unemployment to depression and domestic abuse.
But in a similar way to the Florida Project (A must watch film by the way), the film is shot from the children’s perspectives. You don’t see papa hit ma, you get the idea from shouting and the kids hiding. You see their response the next morning when they find Ma with cuts and bruises. You see Manny and Joel’s lack of empathy in contrast to Jonah’s. When Paps loses his jobs, watching him being upset the children start chanting “No more job, no more crying” to cheer him up and process it themselves. The film uses a say, don’t see approach effectively.
There are plenty of low shots and close up to the children throughout the film as the camera focus on their expressions. We get a further look into Jonah’s perspective as he enjoys drawing. These pictures are presented to us as beautiful animations showing us his inner feelings.
As time goes on we see a shift. While we saw at the beginning some nuanced differences between the three, as we go on, Manny and Joel become more troublesome but Jonah remains more reserved. He also starts to question his sexuality and feels more isolated. It’s an odd balance of his brothers seemingly there for him at times but not others. As he becomes more worried about the world (he thinks his father dug him a grave), we empaphise with him more.
The film has consistent themes which it sticks to throughout. The most salient of these is the idea of freedom. This place never really feels like home. You have Ma trying to get away from Paps but not being able to. You have the children’s friend trying to get money to get on a plane to see their parents in another state. You also have Jonah trying to get away from everything. There is a slight feeling of being trapped and the grave I mentioned earlier.
On the whole, the film is very quite with little music adding to an intimate and personal atmosphere. We see the characters for what they are but gain a respect and understanding of our three leads’ feelings towards the situations. The film gets a lot right and not much wrong. However, the film is set over six months unlike the book which goes over two years. While this allows for a pressure cauldron, it also makes some of our character transformations feel unnatural. This may be a result of a limited budget and actors being unable to age overnight (Not every film is boyhood), but it just takes from the consistency. Furthermore, the end may be unsatisfying to some viewers (I have added a spoiler tab to discuss it).
Click here to see discussion of the endingDid the ending suck? (Spoilers) The film concluded as so: Earlier on in the film, we see Jonah imagine he’s flying away from inside the grave, before being stopped and awoken by his brothers. Later on in the film, after his family find some erotic drawings, he flips out. He goes to his brothers and they do the “Bodyheat” thing I mentioned earlier. However, in reality, he imagined this as they are really in bed asleep. He then find his images thrown away in the bin and we see him floating away from the bin before the credits roll.
This ending has plenty of interesting elements. Firstly his parents finding his drawings is expected. We didn’t see him do these drawings, so we have an element of surprise shared with them. This time we have the first example of something in our faces. We see Jonah flip out and his siblings’ reactions. They are confused and at this point we feel Jonah is alone.
The second part with the imaginary body heat is sad. It shows a contrast between what he wants to happen and what is happening. However, what the director shows brilliantly is a level of ambiguity. As Manny and Joel are asleep we don’t know their reaction. This element was frustrating, however shows a switch between the story from the children’s perspective to only Jonah’s.
The third part of the conclusion is perhaps the most interesting. We see Jonah find the drawings and reminisce. We then see the shadow of his body flying away. This leaves it very much to our interpretation. He clearly feels a sense of freedom. Earlier, he implied this to be through being in the grave and going to heaven. Does is still mean that? Has he ran away from home and left his brothers behind for good? Or does he just feel liberated? It’s an ending which leaves more questions than answers, but part of the beauty is that we can interpret it how we want.
Me personally, I think he ran away and found freedom. Maybe the book will give me a different perspective when I get around to reading it.
We the Animals offers a look into lives that cinema rarely shows. Less is more in this beautifully crafted film that has style in abundance and substance when looking into some difficult issues. [Grade: A]
This film has had a limited run in certain cinemas but can also be rented for 30 days on Amazon Video UK from £7.99.