Justin Torres‘ mercilessly bleak novel “We the Animals” was his way of coming to terms with the tough childhood that scarred him emotionally. If ever a film adaptation would happen, the best approach to nail Torres’ poignantly dreamy chioldhood vignettes would be to hire a non-fiction filmmaker. Enter Jeremiah Zagar (“In a Dream“), who in his first narrative feature, teams with co-screenwriter Dan Kitrosser and tries to capture the minimalism of Torres’ visionary tale and the desolate surrealism that lies in his words.

The plot is simple: summer has just arrived, and three brothers, barely pubescent in age, roam, freewheelingly, in an impoverished upstate New York neighborhood. Their mom (Sheila Vand) and dad (Raul Castillo), have a troubled marriage. Former high school sweethearts, this dysfunctional couple can passionately make love one minute and then throw sharp objects at each other the next. Ma has a blue-collar job at the town brewery, but Paps struggles to keep any work. As gender roles swap, the anger in the family patriarch turns into bouts of verbal and physical abuse. The kids watch the fights with wide-eyed confusion as their folks fight and reconcile on a nightly basis.

Ma can’t escape the fact that Paps is physically abusive, so much so that he manages to give her a bloody sore lip, which she tries to tell the kids was the result of a dental mishap. Eventually, Paps leaves, and Ma’s sinking depression finds her unable to leave her bed, and take care of the kids. Garbage piles up in the house, so do the dishes, and meals go unserved which results in the kids having to shoplift the 7/11 for food.

Torres relied heavily on atmosphere in his novel, and the film version is no different. The main protagonist is young Jonah (Evan Rosado), the most fascinating of the three children. With piercing blue eyes, Jonah slowly becomes distant from his two older brothers as he discovers his own sexual awakening. Attracted to a local farmer’s kid, who invites him into his basement to watch gay porn, it’s an eye-opening experience and exposes Jonah to an urge he didn’t know he had.

The fact that Zagar depicts the gay themes in this film in a such restrained, subtle fashion makes “We the Animals” a welcome addition to the ever-expanding coming-of-age genre. The filmmaker uses Jonah’s therapeutic drawings (Mark Samsonovich is credited as the artist of these sketches) to articulate all the rage that’s growing in the boy. This brings a daring, artful resonance to the narrative.

A key, traumatizing experience happens to Jonah earlier in the film as Paps decides to teach him how to swim, but decides to just to drop his son in the deep end of the lake with the kid frantically trying to swim his way back up. The two other brothers, Manny (Isaiah Kristian) and Joel (Josiah Gabriel), are more like Dad and will most likely inherit his macho masculinity when they grow older, and this makes Jonah the target of their ridicule, as they start to gang up on him and mock his more sensitive mannerisms.

Clearly inspired by Benh Zeitlin‘s masterpiece “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” Zagar and cinematographer Zak Mulligan infuse magical surrealism to the film’s frames, such as underwater sequences which Jonah dreams up due to the incident at the lake. There are images of children covered in mud, the aforementioned sketch drawings and, most notably, Jonah levitating to the sky free of all the burdens that hamper him back down on the ground.

This is an assured, confident feature-directing debut for Zagar who shows great promise in his ability to render a confident and brilliant work of art from difficult-to-adapt source material. His film is a complicated coming-of-age tale that not only brings refreshing insights but gives us beautifully rendered images that have the power to haunt you for days. [B+]

Click here for our complete coverage from the 2018 Sundance Film Festival