We the Animals [2018] – A Unique and Deeply Affecting Coming-of-Age Tale

Jeremiah Zager’s feature-film debut We the Animals (2018) boasts one of those hauntingly poetic, plot-less coming-of-age narrative. Punctuated with beautiful and tragic vignettes, the impressionistic visuals register the interior life of a sensitive 10-year boy with little dialogue. Zager’s film is based on Justin Torres’ semi-autobiographical novel, detailing the emotional scars he incurred by his tough childhood. To stay faithful to the taut, raw, and precise tone of Torres’ 144-page novel, Zager and his co-writer Daniel Kitrosser had discarded the familiar narrative tropes and have also further intensified the thematic explorations of boyhood, masculinity, and sexual awakening through a striking visual form.

Aided by Zak Mulligan’s gorgeous cinematography (bathes the screen with golden yellow, deep greens and blues) and Nick Zammuto’s nuanced atmospheric score, We the Animals easily stands apart from the year’s other typical coming-of-age movies. Nevertheless, the languorous aesthetics demands great patience. The ‘We’ in the title are three barely pubescent brothers, who roam free among the woods, lakes, and lanes of a blue-collar New York neighborhood. Shot on Super 16mm film, marked by a grainy look to attune to the period the movie is set (1980s), the early vignettes tracks these rambunctious boys lapping up summer’s warmth and engaging in various playful rituals. The tale unfolds from the perspective of youngest of the three siblings, Jonah (Evan Rosado); the eldest is named Manny (Isiah Kristian) and the next Joel (Josiah Gabriel). The boys’ weary working-class parents (played by Raul Castillo and Sheila Vand) find it hard to put up with financial hardships while coming to terms with their turbulent marriage, let alone take care of the boys.

Left mostly to their own devices, Manny, Joel and Jonah rely on each other for companionship. We see the boys cooping inside the bed-sheet at night with torchlight in hand, and chanting ‘body heat, body heat…’ We see them joyously dancing with their Puerto Rican father, who orders them to ‘shake it like you're rich’, ‘shake it like you’re white’. We also see the boys witnessing signs of abuse inflicted by their quick-tempered father on their exasperated mother. But once after the violent argument, Paps and Mom kiss and cuddle with real passion. To provide further access to this aimless childhood and volatile domestic life, director Zager adds inky animated sketches (illustrated by Mark Samsonovich), lifted from Jonah’s therapeutic, emotional outpourings. Lying under the bed in the dark, Jonah articulates unchecked feelings of rage, longing, and fear through these raw drawings. It’s his way of making sense of the chaos. Jonah’s artistic skills also suggest that he hasn’t inherited their dad and brothers’ overflowing masculinity. In fact, the boy’s sensitive nature turns to be subject of ridicule as Manny and Joel gang up on him. All along the way, Jonah’s sexual identity is ushered in through his acquaintance with a teenage boy Dustin (Giovanni Pacciarelli), who hangs out with in his grandpa’s basement drinking soda and watching pornography. 

Director Zagar does a commendable job in subtly communicating the evolution of the boys’ brotherhood over a six-month period. The narrative core presents how the harsh and tender things the boys witness over this period gets internalized and how it may control their adolescent, and later, adult phase of life. By the end, Jonah clearly seems to break away from the ‘We’ scrawled in the title. In the opening scenes, the brothers look identical and move like a single unit. Their primal screams make them look like off-springs of early man. Adding to this feeling is the ‘body heat’ chant, which is also offered as a symbol of the brothers’ intimacy, and the absence of this chant towards the end suggests how that circle of intimacy is now lost. The animation, crayon drawings, and ceaseless flow of magical realism serve other important motifs to sensorially express the idiosyncrasies of Jonah. Employing agile, handheld camerawork, Zager and Zak closely adhered to the kids’ point-of-view while also deftly detailing the cumulative effect of singular things the boys perceive. One random violent burst (when a boy slaps his father’s bare back during a joyous family moment) superbly hints at unaddressed issues of the family’s convoluted bond.

We the Animals not only recreates the volatile childhood (unfolding in working-class background), but also zeroes-in on masculinity, the expectations and restlessness that comes with it. Manny and Joel’s path to manhood looks so different from Jonah’s. It is best illustrated in the scene the three brothers wake their mother after a physical altercation she has with their father the previous night. The two brothers’ reaction to their mothers’ physical abuse establishes the essential difference between them and Jonah (the traumatizing ‘swimming’ scene also conveys the contrast between them). Raul Castillo effectively conveys the contradiction between being a macho guy and sensitive parent. His masculinity contains a magnetic sense that pulls his wife and sons. But then his hyper-macho quality often stands as source of instability. The performances of the five-member cast is nothing short of brilliant (especially the three non-professional child actors). Sheila Vand (of ‘A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night’) and Castillo spectacularly showcase the feral as well as sensual energy that drives their relationship (alongside working-class angst). Overall, ‘We the Animals’ (94 minutes) marks an assured, mesmerizing feature-film debut and offers profound insights on boyhood and broken family.  


Blindspotting [2018] – A Buddy Comedy that Delivers Fierce and Timely Social Critique

Carlos Lopez Estrada’s impressive debut feature Blindspotting (2018) effortlessly sets up the conflicts and basic narrative arc within first few minutes. Oakland native Collin (Daveed Diggs), a young black man and convicted felon, after two months in jail has to spend his one-year probation at a halfway house. Then the narrative abruptly shifts to last three days of Collin’s probation who has possibly done good to stay out of problem so far, which looks like a tough task because of his white, volatile best buddy Miles (Rafael Casal). The fact that these guys are in the car of an illegal firearms dealer, enveloped in bright purple light, purchasing a hand gun causes some distress. Miles’ disarming banter and the wacky gun dealer (also an Uber driver) who has stashed away plethora of guns inside the car does elicit awkward laughs. But we know Chekhov’s gun principle and warily wait for the hell the gun is going to bring. And let’s remember that this is set in present-day America, where young African-Americans can be shot at for sticking their hands inside their pockets, let alone carry guns. The weary and insecure Collin does have tough three days to endure.

Blindspotting, however, isn’t a uniformly bleak tale of hood with gun violence casually tossed off. Written by life-long friends, music artists, and co-stars Diggs and Casal, this is a very funny yet low-key chronicle of Collin's reintegration into a rapidly gentrifying society. The pair use comedy and heightened spoken verse to do some thematic heavy-lifting which they make sure doesn’t get lost in our blind-spots. Of course, the meaning of the title is explained by one of the characters alluding to Rubin’s vase, a popular optical illusion in which our eyes can either see a vase or two facing profiles, based on what the brain chooses to react to first.

The movie’s opening also introduces us to a vital character in the narrative: Oakland. The opening credits set to blissful operatic music reveals snippets of the Bay Area city’s life and spirit. Blindspotting’s social commentary becomes clear once we learn the boisterous central characters’ job. Collin and Miles works for a moving company, witnessing first-hand the gentrification of their neighborhood as house-flippers, hipsters and other upscale residents are taking over. Their beloved, relaunched local burger joint offers pricey good-for-naught food, bodegas sell $10 dollar green juice, and rich tech people attempt to emulate stereotypical ghetto speak, while showing off the precious coffee table that’s actually cut-down from the trunk of a very old Oakland tree. Lying beneath these guy’s bafflement over cultural appropriation are timely social problems and palpable personal conflicts.

The evening after the unsettling gun-purchasing episode, Collin has to rush to his room before the 11 PM curfew, set by the court. But before that he has to drop off the moving truck. Collin impatiently waits for the red light to change (the red light perpetually symbolizing the feelings of being stuck) and out of nowhere a black man bumps into the front of truck. A police officer (Ethan Embry) chases and guns down the unarmed black man. Collin, frozen to his seat, witnesses all this. He physically moves from that place, but he is heavily traumatized and fears the punishment his racial identity might bring one day. The best parts of the narrative are however the lived-in personal moments, like observing the intense camaraderie between Miles and Collin or Miles’ heartwarming family unit – his impertinent wife Ashley (Jasmine Cephas Jones) and little multi-racial son Sean (Ziggy Baitinger) -- or Collin’s tenuous connection with his ex-girlfriend Val (Janina Gavankar). There’s also more joy in the way the friends randomly burst into funny, freestyle raps.

Director Estrada employs range of stylized techniques (crane shots, split-screen format, etc) to effectively get into the characters’ psyche. For the most part, he smartly handles the narrative’s serio-comic tone, especially in the superb third-party flashback scene, revealing the reason for Collin’s conviction. The tale of hipster and burning drink starts as outright comedy, but gradually as the perspective shifts the sadness of the situation emerges to the front. The haunting dream sequence shot like music-video was another example of the film’s formal brilliance. Cinematographer Robby Baumgartner does a great job in capturing the whole spectrum of life and colors in Oakland. Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal elaborately layered writing cuts through the blind-spots plaguing the characters on a personal and social level. ‘What does society (including us viewers) sees when it looks at the Collins of the world? What Collin sees when he looks at himself? What do we think of coded racism in news reports that covers police shootout of unarmed black man? What do we perceive as the ‘real’ Oakland?’ (or for that matter any gentrifying historical city), the wildly different answers to these questions Diggs and Casal think may emphasize the collective blind-spots that stops things from getting better.

Diggs and Casal’s charismatic performances bring perfect buoyancy to the proceedings in order to ingest the darker, blunt truths.  Diggs naturally has broader scope in the central role and he neatly carries the narrative’s lugubrious tone. In fact, much of the acting and writing never feels rehearsed or fake that the overwrought, forced ending sticks out oddly. Like BlacKkKlansman, Blindspotting wants to vociferously declare its social message vibrating with righteous anger, despair, and resilience that it gets too melodramatic and off-putting. It didn’t land much of a blow unlike the much organic confrontation between Collin and Miles over their racial identity and the relevant lingo. Barring this misstep, Blindspotting (95 minutes) is a poignant indie which not only zeroes-in on the African-American experience in Trump’s era, but also looks under the surface of relevant social issues: such as police brutality, ruthless justice system, systemic racism, and gentrification which maintains segregation. 


BlacKkKlansman [2018] – A Flawed yet Impassioned Look at U.S. Race Relations

Spike Lee’s brilliant biopic Malcolm X (1992) opened with the image of American flag burning into shape of X. In his latest witty as well as agitated crime-drama BlacKkKlansman (2018), Lee finishes with the shot of an American flag in black-and-white, depicted upside-down, underlining the country’s civic plus political distress of the past and present, and also sounding alarm bells for the future.  BlacKkKlansman, however, is not one of the director’s strongest works although it thoroughly entertains us with an intriguing serio-comic tone (and retains all his attention-grabbing stylistic flourishes). The film is based on stranger-than-fiction true story (or as the opening credits says, “some fo’ real, fo’ real shit”) about a African-American rookie detective in the Colorado Springs police department in 1970s who infiltrated the local wing of Ku Klux Klan by impersonating as a white racist over the phone.

John David Washington (son of Denzel) plays Ron Stallworth, who proudly wears his black identity and happens to be the first black police officer working at Colorado Springs police force. The Stallworth memoir this movie is based on is set in the late 1970s, but the director moves the setting to Nixon-era to easily extrapolate the messiness of early 1970s to the present. Assigned (condemned) to records room, Ron requests the chief for an undercover gig. Typically, his first task was to pose as an audience member at a speech delivered by civil rights-activist Stokely Carmichael aka Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) and report for possible subversive activity. There he also meets student activist leader Patrice (Laura Harrier), who displays aversion for cops. Ture’s vibrant speech makes a huge impact on Ron and other young black men and women. Director Lee keeps cutting back to the black faces absorbing the fierce words, which ends with a pulsating chant “All power to all people!” This moment of awakening might be the reason why Ron picks up the phone at office next day and calls a number listed on a KKK ad published in the local newspaper.

Adopting an amiable ‘white’ voice, Ron begins to drop in slurs about how he hates Jews, black people and every other foes of the Klan. He also narrates an incident about an ‘n—er’ who put his “filthy black hands” on his “purest white-driven-snow” sister. Impressed by Ron’s rhetoric, the Klan leader of the local chapter (Ryan Eggold) offers an in-person invite. Of course, Ron can’t go to the meeting and he solves that problem by wiring and sending his partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver). The single undercover entity, played by two men, gradually takes steps to expose any violent plans hatched by the hostile and dimwitted racists. Eventually, the undercover job isn’t all just about Ron getting increasingly aware of his identity. Even the Jewish Flip confides how the Klan’s hatred contemplates his own identity (“I wasn’t raised with any real religion or sense of difference. I never thought about it before. Now, I’m thinking about it all the time”). Considering America’s revamped ethno-racial identity politics, it’s a resonant truth that’s casually tossed off.

Spike Lee largely wants us to laugh at the deceptively simple ploy: a black and Jew rooting out the absurdity and alarming misguided aspirations of the Klan. Back when Lee was a student at NYU Film School, his professors said to have lauded the formal brilliance of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) without touching upon the movie’s outright racist message. In fact, Lee’s student film that served as a response to this approach caused problem with his professors. In BlacKkKlansman, Lee brings in veteran singer, activist and actor Harry Belafaonte to insist on the silent feature’s poisonous effects (considered to have renewed the KKK when it was on the decline), which is still regarded as a formative film history text and landmark of narrative film-making (Lee also takes shots at the alleged Hollywood epic ‘Gone With the Wind’). He doesn’t care about getting under the skin of white racists. He makes those characters deliberately cartoonish in order to fiercely counterbalance the swaggering tone adapted by Griffith’s century-old movie. 

Like Do The Right Thing (1989), what lays beneath Lee's narrative surface is a boiling rage on the continuity of racial injustice. But unlike that masterful dark comedy, Lee goes for a purposefully palatable message for the mainstream viewers in BlacKkKlansman. Starting from the way the title is rendered to Alec Baldwin cameo as an unabashed bigot (who very much sounds like the guy desiring to “make America great again”) to using Charlottesville footage, the director avoids subtlety which he feels not the right tone to depict a society that’s imploding. Lee rather employs the tools of melodrama, put together for Griffith’s virulently racist content, to demonstrate how centuries of racial hatred have seared its way to the present (and would in the future), denying reconciliation and widening the rift.

Lee does struggle in handling the unsettlingly tense and comic quotient in the script (penned by Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott), even though he makes up for some of the tonal flaws with his trademark visual panache (the Klan initiation scene juxtaposed with Belafonte’s painful recollection was one such example). The writing too suffers from not providing a semblance of interiority to the characters. John David, Adam Driver, Jasper Paakkonen, Topher Grace, etc delivers commendable performance, but their respective characters are only explored on the surface level. Nevertheless, Lee’s pointed sociopolitical message throws gut-punches at the right occasions. Altogether, BlacKkKlansman (136 minutes) is an engrossing and galvanizing melodrama which gains its distressing, raw power by bitingly relating it to hot-button issues of Trump era.