Big Screen Berkeley: ‘We the Animals’ and ‘Tristan und Isolde’

We the Animals examines the lives of a multiracial working-class family living on the edge of poverty

I’m not sure exactly when Terrence Malick became an influence on other filmmakers, but if I had to guess I’d probably settle on the period following the release of his 2011 sleep inducer The Tree of Life.  A.J. Edwards’  The Better Angels came meandering along in 2014, draped in cinematic clothing of a decidedly Malickian cut, and — somewhat unbelievably — director J.J. Abrams suggested he’d taken “lessons in stillness” from the Oscar-nominated auteur when helming 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

As We the Animals (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Aug. 24) began, my internal Malick alarm began to sound. The film’s opening scenes seemed to be cribbed directly from Terrence’s playbook, featuring lingering shots of gently undulating grass and shimmering sunlight refracted through rippling waters, all accompanied by deadpan narration. Uh oh.

Based on a novel by Justin Torres, We the Animals quickly pulls back from the brink and turns into a pretty decent little picture. Happily, the evidence on the screen suggests that, while director Jeremiah Zagar probably likes him some Malick, he’s no slavish imitator.

Set somewhere in rural America (the film was shot in upstate New York), Zagar’s film examines the lives of a multiracial working-class family living on the edge of poverty. Paps (Raúl Castillo) is a security guard, Ma (Sheila Vand from A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) a factory worker assembling pop bottles. Pre-pubescent brothers Joel, Jonah and Manny complete this loving and tightly knit family, albeit one under some financial stress.


Youngest brother Jonah (Evan Rosado) is different from his siblings. Bookish and artistic, he spends his spare time under the bed, drawing pictures and writing notes. Paps knows he’s different, and in an effort to toughen up his third son takes him for an ill-advised swimming lesson that precipitates the first of a series of temporary family breakups.

While there are arguments, sharp bursts of domestic violence, and separations throughout We the Animals, Zagar is clearly intent on avoiding the sort of cinematic ‘poverty porn’ one might associate, for example, with Harmony Korine. The film’s characters may be flawed, but they’re not the typical one-dimensional working-class characters Hollywood generally deals in. They feel real.

Filming primarily on 16mm, cinematographer Zak Mulligan relies a little too much on that bane of 21st-century cinema, shakycam. Nonetheless, there are several visually impressive moments, including a lovely scene of the boys riding in the back of Pap’s pick-up truck, pointing their fingers skyward and ‘shooting’ at the stars above. Overall, We the Animals is an intelligent, quietly effective feature with enough dramatic highlights to hold your attention.

‘Tristan und Isolde’

Claude Heater in Tristan und Isolde, a rarely seen screen adaptation showing at Berkeley City Club on Aug. 24

I am most definitely not an opera fan, but there’s a special film event coming up at 1 p.m. on Friday, Aug 24 at the Berkeley City Club that even piques my interest. Featuring Oakland-born singer Claude Heater (who played Jesus Christ in 1959’s Ben-Hur), Tristan und Isolde is a rarely seen 1968 Belgian television adaptation of Richard Wagner’s opera. Acts 2 and 3 of the opera will screen Friday, with future screenings of the entire four-hour opera a possibility.