For his first narrative feature film, director Jeremiah Zagar has adapted Justin Torres’ semiautobiographical debut novel from 2011. Co-written by Zagar and Dan Kitrosser, the script is a sensory-rich celebration of the imagination.
Shot in 16mm, the setting—upstate New York in the 1980s—looks both lush and beggared with its acres of wilderness moldering a former mill town; a paradise depressed. Brothers Manny (Isaiah Kristian), Joel (Josiah Gabriel) and Jonah (Evan Rosado) run feral, their parents (Raúl Castillo and Sheila Vand) preoccupied with their own heated, abusive relationship.
At 9, Jonah, alone, escapes from the poverty and violence into a narrative that he illustrates in notebooks he hides in the springs under the bed the three brothers share. These drawings cascade across the screen as colored-pencil animations, credited to Mark Samsonovich, providing a more precise point of view than the largely impressionistic inchoate mood that came before, and without which would yield the dulcet emptiness of Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.” The result is a tough yet lyrical coming of age story, leading to a surprisingly sweet sexual awakening.