PFLAG National is excited to announce a new partnership with the Sundance Film Festival Award-winning film We The Animals. Adapted from Justin Torres’ debut novel, it tells the coming-of-age story of three young boys—Manny, Joel and Jonah—who tear through their childhood in the midst of their young parents’ volatile love that makes and unmakes their family many times over. Their story is told through the eyes of Jonah, the youngest of the three boys, and is tied together with vignettes and animation, which showcase the forces acting on the boys as they mature.
While brothers Manny and Joel grow into versions of their loving and unpredictable father, Ma seeks to shelter young Jonah in the cocoon of home. More sensitive and conscious than his older siblings, Jonah increasingly embraces an imagined world all his own.
What originates as subtle hints at a divide between the boys develops into a clear separation between the three. A major difference between Jonah and his brothers? Jonah is gay, and the evolution of Jonah’s character in his sexual orientation is captured beautifully in the screenplay by Jeremiah Zagar (who also directs) and openly gay playwright Dan Kitrosser, who used some of his own experiences to give Jonah the authentic voice needed to tell the story.
Says Zagar, “Dan is gay, and I’m not. And it was very important for us to make sure that the gay perspective was authentic.” Kitrosser could easily relate to the story’s protagonist. “That was something that spoke to me from the very beginning,” he recalls. “I remember, as a kid, being so aware of everybody’s bodies constantly, and what I shouldn’t look at and what I should. That was something very tied to my sexuality, and something that was really palpable in the book.”
We the Animals was shot in the summer of 2016, with the production team returning to the location in February 2017 for another six days of shooting. “We wanted to see the boys grow up onscreen,” Zagar says. “I wanted their aging to be literal, not acted,” and to observe a true passage of time.
Zagar’s previous work was primarily as a documentarian, which suits the voice of the film beautifully: we’re not watching a movie about a family, we really are watching a family, and the effect is powerful and moving. The casting process was lengthy and nontraditional, taking a year to complete until the casting directors found the right people for the roles.
One of the most important and unique tools Zagar uses in the film is Jonah’s journal. Says Zagar, “It’s a device we use to help you understand the private space of this young boy and how he’s processing what he sees, and in this family, in a house that intentionally has no doors—just curtains—there is no privacy. They all live together, they all hear everything. They all feel everything. And even though Jonah desperately wants a private, secret world, the reality of him actually having that is very, very difficult. So under the bed was our place where he could achieve that private world.”
Jonah not only writes in it, but draws, as well—everything from his budding sexuality to the violence between his parents, and how he sees his escape from all of it—all in ways that are fun and creative, while, at the same time, potentially disturbing. In the scenes where Jonah is writing and drawing, what he creates sometimes transitions to or from live action images from the film. Such an approach was innate for a documentary filmmaker who loves to work in a variety of media, as Zagar does. “The duty of the filmmaker is to bring those words and drawings to life for the audience, so that you can feel the imagination of the young man, and feel how that person might process what they’re seeing.”
The art was created by Mark Samsonovich, who was known for murals and installations featuring simple line drawings. With Zagar and Samsonovich sharing a room during the film shoot, they had ample opportunity to conspire, turning the journal into 3,000 hand-drawn pages of animation. Overall, 15 animated shots appear at the beginning of the film and six more appear elsewhere.
All in all, We the Animals is a visceral coming-of-age story propelled by layered performances from its astounding cast and stunning animated sequences which bring Jonah’s torn inner world to life. Director Zagar creates an immersive portrait of working-class family life and brotherhood. A number of PFLAG chapters will have an opportunity to attend the film (paid by the filmmakers), share information about their chapter with audiences, and even receive some financial support from the filmmakers in support of their work. PFLAG is excited to help elevate and spread the word as the film comes to theatres across the country beginning in August.
Watch the trailer: