Producers: Tonya Lewis Lee, Nikki Silver, Aaron L. Gilbert, Mike Jackson and Edward Tyler Nahem Director: Anthony Mandler Screenplay: Radha Blank, Cole Wiley and Janece Shaffer Cast: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Jennifer Ehle, Tim Blake Nelson, Nasir ‘Nas’ Jones, Rakim ‘A$AP Rocky’ Mayers, Jennifer Hudson, Jeffrey Wright, Nyleek Moore, Paul Ben-Victor, John David Washington, Jharrel Jerome, Dorian Missick, Willie C. Carpenter, Rege Lewis, Jonny Coyne, Lovie Simone, Liam Obergfoll, Roberto Lopez and Mikey Madison Distributor: Netflix
Director Anthony Mandler’s feature debut, which has been sitting on the shelf for a few years, is based on a 1999 YA novel by Walter Dean Myers (which was in turn adapted into 2015 graphic novel), and it not only follows the book’s plot but tries to mimic its fractured narrative form in cinematic terms. Some may find the flashy technique distracting, undermining the simple power of the story; but the same criticism could be leveled at the original, and it can be argued that here, as there, the complexity actually helps to emphasize the ambiguity Myers—and now Mandler—are aiming for.
“Monster” is a term leveled at Steve Harmon (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) by Anthony Petrocelli (Paul Ben-Victor), the New York DA prosecuting him for acting as the lookout in a robbery-gone-wrong that ended in the death of a bodega owner (Roberto Lopez). The question the film asks us to ponder isn’t just whether the accusation is justified, but how Harmon sees himself in the aftermath of the tragedy.
Harmon is a young man not unlike the one Harrison played in “Luce”—a smart, thoughtful teen with a potential for a great future. He lives in Harlem in a strong middle-class home with a designer father (Jeffrey Wright), a loving mother (Jennifer Hudson) and an adoring kid brother (Nyleek Moore). He’s a student at an elite high school, where as an aspiring filmmaker he’s a standout in the class taught by Leroy Sawicki (Tim Blake Nelson). And he has a charming girlfriend (Lovie Simone) that he loves to photograph, framing her—as he does the world—in the cinematic way he’s obsessed with.
But his neighborhood can be a tough place. Some street kids, like Osvaldo Cruz (Jharrel Jerome) hassle him as he walks around taking photos. But one, James King (Rakim ‘A$AP Rocky’ Mayers), seems to befriend him, inviting him to shoot his basketball moves and his chess-playing in the park. It’s some time later that King introduces him to his cousin “Bobo” Evans (John David Washington), with whom he intends to rob the bodega.
Interspersed with this background material is the story of Steve’s arrest, incarceration and trial, in which he’s represented by public defender Maureen O’Brien (Jennifer Ehle). He’s standing trial alongside King, and testifying against them in exchange for reduced sentences are Evans and Cruz, who admits to having been recruited to obstruct any attempt to chase after the robbers, and the film includes episodes from his jail experience, such as visits from his mother and father and instructive conversations with another inmate (Nasir ‘Nas’ Jones), as well as excerpts from sessions with his attorney and from courtroom testimony. Among the latter is his own denial of the charges, which O’Brien concludes is necessary to avoid conviction.
All of this is presented in a complicated format, with a wealth of narration by Harmon that frames the story not only in first-person terms but in those of a third-person screenplay, and employing a variety of visual styles employed that Mandler, cinematographer David Devlin and editor Joe Klotz juxtapose to create a sort of puzzle effect. The result is a kinetic amalgam that, except for a few instances (like Wright’s sad visit to his son in prison), doesn’t allow scenes to breathe as they might in a more straightforward telling. There are also simple miscalculations, as in the classroom scenes, where a discussion of “Rashomon” provides a crudely on-the-nose lesson of how our different perspectives can color our impressions of people and events.
That, of course, is a fundamental theme Myers’ novel, and Mandler’s film captures it as well as the book’s deliberately complex storytelling style. Some will complain that the result is too show-offish to portray with sufficient force the harsh reality of Harmon’s encounter with a legal system that too often prejudges young black men. But that reflects the filmmakers’ desire to mirror the tone and tactics of the book as faithfully as they can, and bolstered by Harrison’s powerful performance and an array of strong supporting turns, “Monster” emerges as a perceptive and challenging tale. It certainly did not deserve to be relegated to the shelf as long as it was.