Jonah, the dreamily watchful young protagonist of “We the Animals,” is the youngest of three brothers living with their parents in a cramped working-class household in Upstate New York. With their parents either working or fighting or playing out volatile sexual games, the boys are mostly left on their own, leading a feral, wild-child existence of invented private languages, knowing glances and the tribal code of secret sharers.
Jonah, portrayed in an astonishing turn by Evan Rosado, is the sense-maker within the chaos, writing furiously in a hidden notebook and punctuating the text with slashing, crude illustrations of violence and tenderness. Those images form a recurring motif in “We the Animals,” which has been adapted from Justin Torres’s novel by Jeremiah Zagar (who wrote the script with Dan Kitrosser) in a film that feels like something conjured out of memory and magic, a poetic, often ecstatic re-creation of childhood that captures its ungovernable pleasures as vividly as its most threatening terrors.
Less a linear narrative than a collection of pivotal moments in the course of a year in 10-year-old Jonah’s life, “We the Animals” is never just one thing: It would be easy — and lazy, and unforgivably cliched — to describe Ma (Sheila Vand) and Paps (Raul Castillo) as impoverished, immature and inattentive, although through certain lenses they’re all three. She works in a bottling plant, he’s a security guard, and although they’re one miscalculation away from financial disaster, they’re keeping it together. Their relationship is similarly paradoxical: After a particularly bruising fight, Paps leaves, and Ma takes to her bed for days on end, with Jonah and his brothers, Manny (Isaiah Kristian) and Joel (Josiah Gabriel), fending for themselves with cold cereal and, eventually, scavenging from a neighbor’s garden. A few moments later, Paps is back, sweetly trimming his youngest son’s hair and tumbling into an affectionate wrestling match with the entire brood.
It’s through Jonah’s translucent green eyes and quiet narration that we come to understand how every experience he has — with his older brothers, with Ma and Paps, with the neighbor’s affectless but magnetic grandson — helps form his evolving ideas about love, desire, masculinity and his own worth.
Working in the impressionistic, intuitive tradition of Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” and David Gordon Green’s “George Washington,” Zagar immerses viewers into Jonah’s interior life, where he grasps for ways to put his inchoate feelings into some kind of workable order. Allowing his camera to capture adolescent indolence, languid rays of light and moments of unbearable cruelty with the same spontaneity and tact, Zagar builds a world that is simultaneously deeply authentic and dreamlike — the perfect combination to express a child’s deeply felt but inherently distorted view of the universe he inhabits.
That universe, we see, is one of security that coexists with peril, love that is engulfing and unreliable, and exuberance that is always tempered with a tinge of apprehension. “We the Animals” is a spirited, sobering portrait of the artist as a young man using any means at his disposal — words, images, sensations — to process a confusing and contradictory world. As that world begins to open up, we see the miracle of nascent selfhood as it grows and expands, instinctively reaching to inhabit it.
R. At Landmark’s E Street and Bethesda Row Cinemas. Contains strong sexual material, nudity, coarse language and some underage drug and alcohol use. 90 minutes.