“Finding Justin’s book was a cathartic moment,” Jeremiah Zagar says while lauding the inspiration for his narrative debut We the Animals. Based on the acclaimed ethereal novel of the same name by Justin Torres, Zagar’s new film stars Raul Castillo (Looking) and Shelia Vand (24: Legacy) as parents to three half-Puerto Rican, half-white, fully rambunctious boys struggling to get by in 1980s upstate New York.
As “Ma,” Vand tackles severe depression, while Castillo portrays the abusive yet charismatic father “Paps.” Together, they struggle to raise their youngest son, Jonah, who begins secretly exploring his queer identity. “It’s about when the individual that you are doesn’t blend with the people you grew up with,” Vand says, praising the film’s ability to address multiple issues pertaining to family life, including race. Adds Castillo, “The narrator’s consciousness of being a brown person in a very white environment, to me, it’s very resonant. [It’s] a truly American story.”
Read on for a few other reasons as to why We the Animals is a film worth seeing.
Its ‘intimate’ cast
First-time child actors flank Vand and Castillo as the three bonded brothers. An unwavering duo, Manny and Joel introduce their little brother to the world of traditional American boyhood: sexual fascination, rambunctious outdoorsmanship, and ever-growing independence. To prepare his movie sons ahead of filming, Castillo took them on Brooklyn adventures, including group haircuts, soccer in the park, and shared meals. “By the time we were up in Utica where we shot the film, the cast was intimate,” he says.
The boys needed little acting prep, aside from a few movie magic explanations — Vand informed the boys that “gross” carpet stains weren’t real but meticulous production design. Zagar says they embraced their cinematic debuts and naturally exuded their character’s personas. Evan Rosado is a dreamer like Jonah, just as Josiah Gabriel is the charismatic middle-brother Joel, and Isaiah Kristian the strong, unwavering oldest son Manny. “You just had to point the camera at them, and they did it,” Zagar said.
It’s an everyday #MeToo story
While the film was shot before discussions of abuse in Hollywood surged, Vand says the current climate has made the film less subtle. “I wish this all felt like old news, but it’s not,” she said of a narrative was once erroneously considered reductive. Castillo plays an assaulting yet beloved father, struggling to keep a job and his marriage. Paps is reviled for his mandate that Jonah behave like a man and learn to swim just as he’s adored for his spontaneity, unexpectedly bringing home a pickup truck. “Abuse doesn’t spring from the devil or from rage. It springs from the way we raise each other,” Zagar says.
Zagar didn’t want to wax morally in his depiction of Pa’s dichotomous personality. He’s simply highlighting the experience of an everyday father, brother and, even sometimes, lead actor. “I know guys like this,” Castillo says of his character. “I grew up guys like this, and I am a guy like this at times.”
Ma takes the brunt of her husband’s verbal and occasionally physical abuse. Vand, who delivers a knockout performance, spoke with Torres to understand the mother’s psyche, determining her response in wordless scenes. The actress started attending therapy for the first time as research for her character, allowing her to access the painful emotion of sadness and confusion. “It went hand in hand with making the movie because it’s exhausting and overwhelming making an independent film,” she says.
It’s a ‘living, present-day fever dream’
Zagar read the novel as a “living, present-day fever dream,” visualizing tangible nostalgia. He shot on 16 mm film — the same grainy stock used on Carol and Moonrise Kingdom — while composer Nick Zammuto, who scored Zagar’s first film In a Dream, created a hallow, dream-like tone.
Often tucked between the bedsprings and his mattress, Jonah’s beloved notebook is a secretive presence in the film. The doe-eyed boy is most animated when drawing jagged, vivid pictures under a flashlight while his brothers sleep above. Sensing a visual outlet to explore Jonah’s self-conscious, Zagar expanded the brief literary mentions of drawings into full-fledged visuals on screen by bringing artist Mark Samsonovich to create the messy yet expressive stop-motion animation.
“I’ve seen a lot of things that don’t work because they don’t understand their own tone or they’re tonally inconsistent,” Vand says, noting a film’s feel isn’t always clear until shooting wraps. She credits Zagar with cementing a clear vision before cameras rolled. Inspired by Ratcatcher and Turtles Can Fly, he screened and discussed the foreign films with Vand and Castillo to understand the lyrical and poetic feel.
It’s an intersectional queer film
Zagar wrote We the Animals alongside Daniel Kitrosser, an openly gay screenwriter. Jonah awakens to life beyond childhood tranquility where trauma and connection are as equally muddied as his burgeoning sexuality. Because neither he nor either of his leads identifies as LGBT, Zagar depended on Kitrosser and Torres to bring “vital” perspective to create an authentic queer narrative.
With conversations arising about the responsibility of straight actors taking on queer roles, Castillo is finding himself self-reflecting. He first gained notoriety as Richie, the barber boyfriend to Jonathan Groff’s Patrick on HBO’s short-lived series Looking. Four years later, he now questions if he’s the right actor for the role. “If I got the chance to play a gay character again, if it’s a great script, it’d be hard to pass up,” Castillo says, though he fears the idea of disrespecting a marginalized community.
As for We the Animals, both Castillo and Vand feel they got this one right. Vand adds, “I’m feeling that pressure a little more because I’m hoping that the people who are representing feel it’s an authentic portrait for them.”