Adapted from the 1999 book by Walter Dean Myers, the film marks the feature debut of music video director Anthony Mandler, from a script by a trio of writers, among them Radha Blank, who made her directing debut last year with another Netflix acquisition, "The Forty-Year-Old Version." This movie was screened back at the 2018 Sundance film festival, the drama Monster is about a black teen swallowed up by a cruel legal system, remains just as timely in 2021, a story of a grim predicament that would probably feel similarly relevant in another three or even six years down the line. Strange that it’s gathered dust for so long, less a sign of its quality and packed cast and more perhaps of the time of its premiere, nestled alongside two other dramas covering crudely similar ground (Blindspotting and Monsters and Men), finding itself swallowed up by an industry still only willing to give black stories a small piece of the pie.
Much of the film’s shine can be attributed to a reliably mighty central performance from Kelvin Harrison Jr, whose work to date has continually shown him to be one of the most impressive and commanding young actors working today, equally devastating in dystopian horror It Comes At Night, seat-edge high school thriller Luce and style-over-substance melodrama Waves. Firing on all cylinders once again, Harrison plays Steve, a hard-working student at an elite school, who finds himself charged as an accessory to murder, a bodega robbery gone wrong that leaves its owner shot to death. Steve is accused of being the lookout but he maintains his innocence, even if those within the system are quick to label him guilty.
Harrison’s heartbreaking journey from an honors student to a suspected accomplice is told in jagged bits and pieces, jumping back and forth to the time before and after the fateful incident. The structure is effective at times but it also robs some scenes of drama, keeping us in the dark in moments when being more informed would have helped. While the script is often remarkably subtle, it’s also remarkably clumsy and the performances too range from the great to the lesser.
‘Monster’ compellingly teases us with the question of Steve’s involvement throughout its tight 98 minutes, urging us to wrestle with a cloudy amalgamation of truth, facts, and points of view — just like Rashomon, which famously examined ideas about angles of perspective by offering four stories from four people involved with a crime. Honestly, the Rashomon reference is thuddingly obvious, a meta-commentary somewhat awkwardly junking up a narrative that’s already cluttered with the meta-stuff of its protagonist’s student film projects.
‘Monster’ transparently follows its advice, given voice by Mr. Sowicki. But beyond the unnecessary self-commentary on the art of filmmaking, the movie still offers some worthwhile drama. It addresses the corrupt dynamics of a racist legal system, and pieces together Steve’s life-changing experiences with a tense urgency. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, but it’s passionate thanks to Harrison, who gives his character some depth beyond the usual lost-innocence character arc, and lends credibility to some overwrought voiceover narration; his work is bolstered with strong work by Hudson, Wright, and Ehle. It’s a nicely paced film, occasionally poetic in its visual flourishes and eminently watchable. And bottom line, we care about what happens to Steve, which speaks to its assertion that truth is more than what we just see or hear.
Final Score – [8/10]
Reviewed by – Ritika Kispotta
Follow her @KispottaRitika on Twitter (https://twitter.com/KispottaRitika)
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