Akiba Alumni Draw Success with ‘Animals’

Raul Castillo and Evan Rosado | Photo via The Orchard

When Jeremiah Zagar first read We the Animals by Justin Torres after finding it in a bookshop, he immediately fell in love with it.

He encouraged his friends Jeremy Yaches and Dan Kitrosser to read it, and the trio ended up sharing a deep enthusiasm for the story about three young brothers growing up in rural upstate New York with mixed parentage — Ma is white, Pops is Puerto Rican — and the seesaw of naive childhood and the messy chaos of growing up.

Yaches and Kitrosser shared Zagar’s love for the story, which they then transformed into a feature film produced by Yaches (among others) and written by Kitrosser and Zagar, who also directed. It will begin showing in Philadelphia on Aug. 24 at the Ritz Five.

“I was just incredibly moved by seeing a family that was not unlike my own on the page, and I really wanted to bring it to screen,” said Zagar, who’s made a name for himself in documentary filmmaking. “It’s really messy and intense and [a] beautiful, potent, powerful kind of love that you don’t ever see. A complicated, nuanced love, family love that we often sanitize in stories and in this case it was not.”

Yaches and Kitrosser identified with the story in their own ways, but all shared Zagar’s love for the story that explores a volatile tender-turned-violent (lather, rinse, repeat) relationship between Ma and Pops, and the inseparable brothers — Manny, Joel and Jonah. The story is seen primarily through the eyes of quiet, contemplative 10-year-old Jonah.

And all three agreed We the Animals had to make its way to the screen.

“Before this, we’d only done documentaries,” said Yaches, who co-founded Brooklyn-based production and entertainment company Public Record with Zagar, “but reading this, it was very apparent it was the right kind of story and the right subject matter for Jeremiah to direct and felt like the right size movie for us to try to pull off.”

And pull it off, they did — though it was “a beautiful and long writing process,” Kitrosser said.

“It took 33 years,” he lamented jokingly.

The film went through six years and many iterations of screenplay development before it won the NEXT Innovator Award at Sundance following its debut at the film festival in January 2018, and it’s recently opened in wide release to overwhelmingly rave reviews.

“Now that more and more people are seeing it, we’ve just been hearing from more and more people who find it moving and touching and it helps them deal with things going on in their lives,” Yaches said.

The story explores the bond of siblings through Jonah and his older brothers as they create their own worlds within the one contained in their turquoise house.

They chant “Body heat!” as they huddle on the bed they share, under which Jonah takes a flashlight at night and scribbles in a journal, writing what he sees and thinks as he processes a budding sexual awakening after meeting a neighbor’s teenage grandson who shows the brothers porn and listens to Iron Maiden (“Who’s she?” asks Jonah). The scrawled sketches come to life in the film thanks to animation from Mark Samsonovich.

The exploration of sexuality Jonah experiences was a journey Kitrosser could relate to upon reading the book.

“I’m a younger brother and similarly to the book, my parents found out I was gay because they read my journal,” he said. “Emotionally, we were able to connect deeply to the story and certainly the queerness of it was something I related to from the very first page.”

The overarching familial theme will resonate with a Jewish audience, Zagar said.

“Actually, there’s a close kinship in Jewish families and this family,” he said, “especially in terms of the touchiness and the kind of very intimate, emotional bond that Jews have and Latins share.”

The film also explores the notion of questioning, a Jewish value the three learned in school at what was then Akiba Hebrew Academy (now Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy).

“There’s a push in Judaism — a push for life and a push for questioning life,” Zagar said, “and that questioning is at the heart of this book.”

At Akiba, he said, it was a “revelation” that he could earn better grades by questioning the answers and teachers.

Zagar and Yaches have been friends since seventh grade, and met Kitrosser — who graduated a few years after them — when Zagar directed a production of Lost in Yonkers that Kitrosser, also a playwright, acted in.

“My finest performance,” he laughed. “Dan was great,” Zagar agreed, displaying the banter and affection found among long friendships as the three were on conference call from events in New York and Los Angeles.

To them, the audience’s reactions and connections to the film have been most gratifying.

For Zagar, who wanted Torres involved in the adaptation from the start, having not only the audience’s but the author’s approval was meaningful.

“Everything else is sort of cake on top,” he said. “It’s lovely to feel like you’re part of someone else’s dream and they’re part of yours. That goes to Dan and Jeremy and I, too.”

Kitrosser hopes the story inspires a sense of empathy as it portrays the feeling and sense of being apart from others.

“Though obviously the milieu and the world of this story is terribly specific, we have all been a kid who realizes they are apart from the world,” he said. “For some people, or for many people, that’s an exquisite pain, and I’m hoping that through this movie we are all going to be connected to that time we are apart and hopefully that can steep some empathy as we are in the least empathetic times of all.”

After a beat of silence, he asked, “Was that good?”

“Well said,” his friends approved.

mstern@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0740


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