A young boy from a volatile family comes of age, awakening to a world of abuse, queer sexuality, and poverty. It’s alright if you think the premise for We the Animals sounds a bit like Oscar-winner Moonlight, as many have. Director of the new film Jeremiah Zagar isn’t offended. You’re keeping his and other indie movies from getting lost.
“When they don’t get lost, when they do get embraced, and when audiences are willing to go out and experience something different, that’s really what the comparison is saying — this is a different kind of movie,” Zagar tells EW.
Based on Justin Torres’ beloved novel set in the early ‘90s, We the Animals follows Jonah, the youngest of three half-white, half-Puerto Rican brothers, as he explores trauma and independence amid the disillusionment of his parent’s relationship in upstate New York. The film, out Aug. 17, stars newcomer Evan Rosado as the 10-year-old — or “9 + 1”— Jonah. Raul Castillo (Seven Seconds) plays his charismatic yet erratic Paps to Sheila Vand’s (24: Legacy) empathetic but unhinged Ma.
Zagar’s narrative debut held its Los Angeles premiere on July 14 at OutFest — the country’s leading queer film festival. Though the film centers on Jonah’s emerging gay identity, Castillo doesn’t consider We the Animals just a queer or Latino film.
“I don’t like reductive phrases when it comes to projects,” he said a day before the screening. “Jonah is discovering who he wants to be or who he’s going to be as a male in this world. Sexuality is a part of that.”
Zagar, who identifies as straight, leaned on his gay co-writer Daniel Kitrosser to provide a “vital” and “authentic” queer perspective. The duo previously worked together on Zagar’s 2008 documentary on his own family, In a Dream, and spent nearly four years writing We the Animals. While writing, Kitrosser tapped into his own boyhood experiences of constantly monitoring his awareness of other’s physiques.
The film imbues ethereal live-action footage with ragged stop-motion cartoons from Jonah’s secret journal. The result is an unsettling mix of serenity and chaos. Vand says the dichotomous tone proved tricky on set. She and Castillo walked the three first-time actors playing the brothers through scenes of abuse and neglect. They stayed faithful to Torres’ novel even when depicting honesty proved rough.
“Parts of this movie make people very uncomfortable because you feel like you’re in this cage with the family — the golden cage,” she adds.
We the Animals is the latest in an ever-growing genre of queer coming-of-age films — the Moonlight effect — popularized by Love, Simon and Call Me By Your Name, and now joined by fellow OutFest films The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Skate Kitchen, and Postcards from London. Castillo, who made a name in the queer cinematic canon through HBO’s short-lived gay series Looking, says We the Animals presents a “truly American story” without a reductive or exhibitionist lens. The film, he adds, “beautifully captures what it is to love in all its complexities and what it is to be a young man of color in contemporary America.”