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How a Closeted Kid Finds Hope, Love, and Family in We the Animals

How a Closeted Kid Finds Hope, Love, and Family in 'We the Animals'

How a Closeted Kid Finds Hope, Love, and Family in 'We the Animals'

Stars Raul Castillo and Sheila Vand open up about "this year's Moonlight."


Jonah wishes he were as fearless as his brothers. While they jump into the lake without a care in the world, Jonah can barely hold his breath underwater for more than a couple of seconds before running back to the safety of his mother's arms. 

Pops' approach is different than Ma's gradual one. "He's gotta learn to swim," he says seconds before leaving him gasping for air in the middle of the lake. "How else is he going to learn?"

It feels as if Jonah is holding his breath throughout We the Animals, a hauntingly nostalgic yet youthful film from director Jeremiah Zagar. Set in small-town 1980s New York (and filmed on 35 mm camera), We the Animals is a coming of age story that explores what it feels like to be the other. 

Only his journals, hidden in a cut-out crevice under his bed, know Jonah's secrets. It's there that we find out he's taken notice of his house's hole-punched walls and Ma's busted lip. But his secrets are bubbling up to the surface. And what does it means to be a family if not a functional one? 

Young and sometimes violently in love, the two seemingly ran away together after getting married and make ends meet by Ma chugging away in a factory and Pops working nights doing security. "This is a family that really loves each other," Vand told PRIDE. "It isn't just broken, isn't just struggling, but all of that pain and struggle comes from a place of love."

But at one point or another, every member of the family feels out of place. Part of the equation is that they're a mixed race couple; Ma is Italian and Pops is Mexican-American, and the town certainly takes notice. Kind-hearted with striking hazel green eyes, Jonah is once referred to as "half as pretty" as his father. Castillo recalled his own upbringing when talking about how Jonah might have felt othered.  

"I grew up in Texas in McAllen," he explained, "the border where it was predominantly Latino, predominantly Spanish speaking, Mexican-American. I left at a young age to go to Boston and that was the first time I was felt like the other, that I felt un-American, that I felt like I said as an outsider. I always felt very American because I'm first generation, but I grew up in an environment where everyone kind of looked like more or less like me. So it was the first time that I felt out of place. 

"That's a theme in the book that I think Justin captured really beautifully. To be mixed race and in an environment where it was predominantly white, to sort of stand out. That's an American story that doesn't get told."

Light spoilers ahead...

Jonah's written thoughts aren't as pretty as his family believes him to be. When a series of events unearths his hidden journals, his secrets are laid out plain in front of his family, including his budding sexuality. When confronted with the reality, he lashes out at them and himself. The journey to this moment is heartbreakingly familiar for many queer people who grew up hiding who they are.

Vand and Castillo hope the film can be a guiding light for other LGBT kids. 

"It's definitely a journey that many people are on that is 100 percent okay to be on. And that also it's okay for the people who love you to maybe be confused about how about processing new information about you," said Vand.

"Until you see examples of yourself, you don't necessarily know that it's okay to be that option for you. I'm so grateful that things are changing now and we are seeing more versions of what it is to be American, more versions of what it is to be human, more versions of how people love. I know the movie's not going to solve anyone's problems, but I definitely hope that any young queer kid, especially queer kids of color, feel like that they can feel a little more understood."

When they find Jonah's journals, perhaps surprisingly, the family doesn't condemn him. 

"It isn't centered around like the victimhood of coming out," Vand pointed out. "The movie leaves you wondering where it's going to go for the family. It doesn't quite feel like things are going to be the same." She adds, "they just don't necessarily have the resources or the tools or the information yet, but there's still a lot of love in this family.

"When specifically Pops, who you think is like the toxic masculine character, you see him comforting Jonah. 'Te quiero, te quiero' or I love you, and it's like we're worried about him and where has he been and what other secrets is he holding? Has anybody been exploiting him? There's so many questions that come up and, and in general, I think this movie explores how complicated it can be and how complicated family can be and how complicated identity can be.

"It's not afraid of those nuances and that's what love is to me. Love is not like a big blanket thing. It's a personal thing and it should be."

Watch the trailer for We The Animals below:

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