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Recently, I’ve grown preoccupied with art that navigates, and sometimes transcends, queer language. Where do the stories about the boys who don’t know Rimbaud and the girls who don’t know Leslie Feinberg go? Who can access same-sex desire without topical touchstones? Who will illustrate the languageless that is a natural side effect of LGBT social assimilation? Perhaps the continued existence of an extemporaneous cruising culture, such as Jonah, the protagonist of We the Animals prematurely explores, hinges upon these questions. Of course, there is a fine line between subtlety and willful closeting–as we all know, silence equals death.
The film We the Animals, despite its insistent exploration of homosexuality, poverty, and brownness as traits that society deems feral, is wonderfully quiet. Based on the the slim novel of the same name by Justin Torres, the movie follows three boys of mixed Nuyorican and white Brooklyn heritage who grow up, tightly-knit and wild, in an unnamed upstate New York community that is one part industrial, one part rural. Numerous factors pit the boys against the world. When their strained parents are able to release one another’s throats from their grasps, the boys have two valuable players on their team.
Director Jeremiah Zagar’s new coming-of-age drama premiered in the most auspicious of buildings, the sort that is overflowing with language: a library. Daniel Kitrosser and Zagar’s screenplay makes few attempts to embellish Manny, Joel, and Jonah’s story, one which is overwhelmingly told using collective pronouns: we, our, us. The adaptation is so effective that, after its premiere at the Park City Library during the Sundance Film Festival, it received two awards: a standing ovation first, and the NEXT innovator prize second.
We the Animals (the film) is a deliberately haphazard adaptation of We the Animals (the book), thanks to Zak Mulligan’s cinematography, luminous and golden–it is as though young, queer Jonah (Evan Rosado), realizing that he has clumped too much yellow pigment on his brush, drags it across the page of his journal anyway.
The desire for excess is a key part of We the Animals. The novel devotes one of its petite chapters to this pursuit:
WE WANTED MORE. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned up the knob on the TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men. We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats; we wanted rock. We wanted muscles on our skinny arms. We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight. We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.
Rather than introducing Jonah’s secret, desire-filled journal at the end of the film (as Torres does in the novel), Zagar sprinkles dramatizations of their furious prose and suggestive Crayola drawings throughout. The ruddy entries allude to a difference: a smallness that his mother cherishes, a prettiness that his father observes, and a homosexual curiosity that, in the film, an older boy is willing to indulge. This difference isn’t pretentious; it’s not big enough to render Jonah, the youngest of the three sons, distinguishable from his brothers as the boys sprint through the woods barefoot at warp speed and stay up past an unenforced bedtime. The mother, feet torn apart from factory labor, and father, soul stretched thin by the impossibility of the American Dream, would’ve been too occupied by the rules that dominate their own lives. This is occasionally of benefit to the boys. When in the throes of it, child neglect can feel a lot like any given liberation movement.
Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats, a standout drama at last year’s Sundance, grapples with homosexuality that doesn’t have a linguistic home. Barely out of high school, Frankie hits up Brighton Beach with his buddies by day and meets grown men in the woods by night, incoherently mumbling through it all. Challenges arise when the horizon between these two realms grows translucent, but the biggest threat to Frankie’s way of living is a witty Manhattanite he encounters on a cruising site. Jeremy, at ease with himself in a way that Frankie isn’t, has a far-flung vocabulary and a car instead of a MetroCard; he’s the sort to shout out, “1969!” when a Jeopardy! question calls for the year of the Stonewall Riots. While Jeremy can be economical for Frankie in other ways, Frankie knows they’ll never truly connect. Alea iacta est. Frankie’s thick-skulled friends are his thick-skulled friends. There are no do-overs at learning one’s first language. There are no second-language courses for boys who get hives at the sight of a hardback book.
In lieu of words, Zagar’s adaptation speaks with a heart’s drum. It’s one that’s already present in the novel’s physical moments. The steady beat of “mutt” boy bodies against their father’s spine or the side of his crappy truck are made literal in the film, as though the kids compose a three-piece merengue band: the nearly-grown Manny on percussion, the intermediary Joel on accordion, and Jonah dragging a spoon across the grooves on the side of an empty Campbell’s soup can.
We the Animals teaches us, that, even without the sharpest of queer tongues, there is an essential cadence that can teach us who we yearn for the most, and whether or not their world holds us in high regard. In the book, in a chapter titled “Heritage,” Jonah’s father offers his son an invaluable lesson by simply dancing to Tito Puente:
He danced, and we tried to see what separated him from us. He pursed his lips and kept one hand on his stomach. His elbow was bent, his back was straight, but somehow there was looseness and freedom and confidence in every move. We tried to watch his feet, but something about the way they twisted and stepped over each other, something about the line of his torso, kept pulling our eyes up to his face, to his broad nose and dark, half-shut eyes and his pursed lips, which snarled and smiled both.
It’s a pleasure to see Justin Torres’ quiet wisdom brought to visual life.
Image via Cinereach