In the opening shots of We the Animals, we see a montage of childhood scenes with three inseparable boys. They play in the yard, run on the beach, stare out the window in a moment of collective boredom—always a trio, together. Directed by Jeremiah Zagar, We the Animals is a poetic film that tells the story of a loving but dysfunctional family through the eyes of the youngest child, Jonah, who draws the world around him to make sense of the chaos he lives in.
From the lens of child welfare advocacy, We the Animals accurately portrays the interrelated issues children experience across the country every day.
What trauma do the boys face? From child neglect and domestic abuse to a lack of mental health services and Jonah’s discovery of the queer identity that sets him apart, all three brothers go through extremely difficult, traumatic experiences. Their parents struggle to make a living and survive in an isolated, upstate New York town. Poverty is the backdrop of the family’s existence, and along with violence, it informs every aspect of their lives.
For example, in one scene Jonah’s mother and father have a heated argument. From the adjacent bedroom, we hear the father’s angry shouts as Jonah tries to drown out the noise, immersing himself in his drawings. In the next scene, the father lies to the three boys to cover up the domestic violence that just happened: “An emergency…I had to take her to the dentist tonight.” He packs a few belongings, then disappears for weeks on end.
The film depicts what happens to children when they are neglected. After the boys’ father leaves, their mother falls into a deep depression, unable to get out of bed, go to work, or care for the children. The three brothers are left unsupervised and hungry—“I’m starving,” one boy says—until they turn to shoplifting as a means of survival. With no mental health services available for the mother, her depression leads to prolonged child neglect for Jonah and his two brothers and pushes them to the edge of criminality.
Although We the Animals is a fictional portrayal, this kind of trauma is a stark reality for many children, and many are placed in foster care due to similar instances of abuse and neglect. The link between poverty and neglect is not uncommon—studies show the children from families with annual incomes below $15,000 are over 5 times more likely to experience maltreatment than children from families whose income exceeds $30,000. Furthermore, children in low socioeconomic status families are 7 times more likely to suffer neglect than those not in low socioeconomic status families.
Poverty, however, does not make for unfit parents. In many instances where a parent cannot properly care for their child due to neglect, services should be implemented to support the parents and maintain family unity. For services to be successful, they should be demographically specific.
As people of color and of Puerto Rican heritage, Jonah and his brothers stand out within an otherwise white, homogenous community. Being one of the few multicultural families can be isolating and can inhibit building a network of support outside the nuclear family. In these cases, it is critical that services, particularly mental health services, consider the various cultural interpretations and stigmas surrounding issues of domestic violence and mental illness.
For Jonah and his brothers, culturally sensitive mental health services could support the mother’s battle with depression, help prevent instances of domestic violence, and ultimately avoid any need to remove the boys from the home.
While Jonah’s family faces many challenges and conflict, we are also shown time and time again how their love can sustain them. This reflects the filmmaker’s own experiences. “The kind of love I understood growing up was complicated,” said Zagar. “It was very important to me to show how children see violence in their home and how they grapple with it. You can decide either to embrace it or step away from it.”
This is the complicated love we see in We the Animals, a story of family unity and individual discovery, belonging and otherness, violence and love. Jonah is just like any kid in America—trying to make sense of this ambivalence and trauma as he begins to discover the world.