Given the inconsistent work, unpredictable payouts, and critical lashings, independent filmmaker certainly isn’t the most convenient job for a new dad. But for Jeremiah Zagar, director of the new film We the Animals, making movies is a way to teach his kids a valuable lesson about compromise: that life needn’t be defined by it. Zagar doesn’t downplay the difficulty of the path he’s chosen — production is a process even if you have the rights to a hit book like Justin Torres’s 2011 bestseller — he wants his kids to see him sweat.
“I do wish I had a more consistent schedule sometimes,” Zagar laughs. “But, at the same time, I really want to show my son you can achieve your dreams and follow your dreams. I want him to be somebody who dreams big. I want to create a model and be the kind of person he can look up to.”
We the Animals tells the story of three brothers living in close quarters and poverty with a combative mother and father. The movie takes place in Upstate New York, where the boys’ Puerto Rican father and white mother have settled in the wilderness. The movie makes the rawness and spareness of their existence beautiful without pulling punches: The protagonists are borderline feral, sleeping on the ground and rarely wearing shit. They are wild, but they’re also sweet and lovable. And part of the reason that it works is that of a Zagar didn’t completely follow the outline of the book.
In Torres’s novel, time passes and the kids get older. The film captures them at one specific moment. It’s less bildungsroman and more jagged slice of life.
“We worked with Justin to build a new arc,” Zagar explains. “We didn’t want them to age up. So that was a challenge.”
Without spoiling the plot of the film, part of that arc is connected to self-discovery for the boys, particularly for the young narrator, Jonah (Evan Rosado). But don’t let the redemptive structure mislead you. The film is a tough watch, something like Blue Valentine meets Peter Pan. Dysfunction, abuse, and homophobia pervade much of the film’s story. Coming of age in this setting is at least in part about surviving.
Zagar wanted to show it all as clearly as possible. Why? Becuase he had a very specific audience in mind.
“I made this movie for my son,” Zagar says. “My son was born three and a half years ago, and first shot ever filmed was around that time. The image of a father and son in a bathtub is emblematic of the kind of themes the movie was really about.”
For Zagar, the broad release of the movie — it’s probably swinging through your local arthouse cinema — the debut of We the Animals represents the conclusion of a long journey back to focusing on more important things.
“It’s funny, I’ve been to a bunch of film festivals, but now, the movie is out,” Zagar explains. “At this point, my son comes first. He’s the most important thing in my life and every else comes second. Giving him a model of being some to dream big is important. But, he wants to draw with crayons right now and I want to be there to draw with crayons. I want to be there for his dreams, too.”
-We the Animals is out now in limited theatrical release from The Orchard.-