Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Aug 19, 2018 8:43 am 
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A little, and a lot

Convincingly apostrophized (by Eric Kohn in Indiewire) as "this year's Moonlight" and "a lower-class variation on Terrence Malick," We the Animals has also been hailed (by David Rooney in Hollywood Reporter) as an incisively accurate adaptation of Justin Torres' admired autobiographical novel, which is only 128 pages long. It's spoken by the youngest of three young boys, Jonah (Evan Rosado). He speaks it in the plural. "Us three. Us brothers. Us kings." "We wanted more," he begins, in an opening apostrophe about their vivid boyhood, boisterous, yet deprived. They want more muscle, more volume, more freedom, more of lots more. For their young parents are lacking, so they're a feral unit for survival.

Their white mother, known as Ma (Shiela Vand), works at the local brewery at night. Their father, who is Puerto Rican, with tattoos from a bad boy youth, can't seem to hold a job. They call him Paps (Raúl Castillo) and they worship and copy him, as much as they can. He's violent, beating his wife and the boys, and when he does something so bad she throws him out, she's so despondent she stays in bed, and there's no food. That's when the boys, always a team, even if the youngest one is different, as slowly appears, start to steal food in town. It's a little town in upstate New York, and they've come there from Brooklyn, where Ma and Paps met in high school, so the boys talk with tough Brooklyn accents. Jonah's two brothers, Manny (Isaiah Kristian) and Joel (Josiah Gabriel) are evolving to resemble their handsomely muscled and mustachioed father more, and Ma pulls Jonah close to her and begs him never to grow older.

Jonah's narration takes us from one formative experience to another, but the boys don't talk much: they act, or are acted upon. A store owner chases them. They go to a swimming hole, and Jonah can't swim, so Paps take him out in the middle, the deep part, and lets him loose. This becomes a recurrent fantasy or daymare, which strangely is sexual. It's in the water, sinking, that he sees himself kissing the blond older neighbor boy - for, this is the Moonlight part, Jonah discovers the first hints that he's turning out to be gay. Sex also enters the little house when the boys are hiding ("you were supposed to look for us!) when Paps and Ma get distracted and in nearly plain sight, start getting read to make love. When the boys find the blond neighbor boy, the old neighbor's grandson, he puts on a tape of porno. They joke raucously. There's a glimpse of gay sex, which Jonah eyes with special interest. Jonah goes back and spends a longer time with the blond boy. The intense cinematography conveys all this clearly but avoids crude underlining.

Reviewers have noticed how well the cinematography and staging of scenes captures intimate physicality, always bodies in motion and close. When the movie began I was convinced the three boys were real brothers, and was distracted by wondering how on earth they found them. This focus on the boys evokes memories of Malick's Tree of Life and Jonah's half-whispered, poetic, staccato, repetitive voiceover is like many of Malick's. But We the Animals does not roam the universe. Its time-span is confined; so is its space. This film is simple and gets things done fast and is never vague, although its lives are uncertain. What will become of them? But the boys are too busy hunting, stealing, playing and surviving to ponder the future. The action lives in a palpable present.

Evan Rosado is brilliantly cast, so he resembles the other two boys so much, but comes to seem subtly softer. A moment comes when Paps has him in his lap and says, "How did I make a pretty one?" It seems neutral, as if he means no harm. Frequently a word or two speaks a lot, and the film moves quickly on to the next phase. His inner life and his fears or desires Jonah records in sketches in a notebook he keeps hidden under the bed. The are animated. This is nice, but artificial, underlining the the film's highfalutin, arty side.

Castillo is an appealing actor. The complexity of Paps comes through only later. On the surface he has zero subtlety, till he gets fired from a security guard job and then his newly bought two truck breaks down and he cries. The boys sing a song about saying goodbye to crying. They are embarrassed, not for the first or last time, and their idol's feet of clay. Another actor might have given Paps the occasional ugly side, but Castillo is too nice for that. As Ma, Viand is underused, but her character is simply not very there to the boys, given that she's out when they come home at night.

We the Animals is admirable for its vividness and clarity, but also its delicacy. It's strong and visceral, but its subject is the imperceptible separation of the "I" of Jonah from the "we" of the three inseparable brothers. The paradox is how everything is intense, yet it's all sketchy, impulsive, inarticulate at the same tiime. It's making a strong impression, but of what? We don't know. Only when the movie works, which it does ninety percent of the time, we don't question it. We're charmed. We don't want more. Less has been more.

We the Animals, 94 mins., was a hit of 2018 Sundance, showing at 11 other festivals including Tribeca, Edinburgh, and Outfest Los Angeles. It opens in US theaters 17 Aug. 2018, NYC at Angelika and Landmark 57 West, LA at The Landmark, Pico Blvd. Metascore 82%.

Opening at Shattuck 10, Berkeley and Embarcadero Center Cinema, San Francisco 24 Aug.

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