Monster is engaging and insightful with some moving performances and an important warning regarding guilt by association
Monster is the story of 17yr old Steve Harmon, an intelligent, talented, and happy teenager from a loving home being arrested as a co-conspirator in a store robbery where the owner has ended up being shot and killed. It’s directed by Anthony Mandler and stars Kelvin Harrison in the title role as Steve Harmon.
The film initially debuted at the Sundance film festival back in 2018 but despite the positive reviews, it has taken three years for it to reach our screens due to a range of factors including licencing and distribution arrangements as well as the Covid Pandemic, of course.
The film is based on a novel written by the late Walter Dean Myers in 1999 and even though certain elements were taken from his life and own experiences, the book is a work of fiction. Despite this, the subject matter will either be very familiar to you or completely alien, pending on the type of environment you grew up in.
Steve (Harrison) is a photography student and an aspiring film maker. To emphasise this, the story is narrated by Steve with parts laid out like audio storyboards or a film script. This tragedy is Steve’s life story on film, and he uses what he knows to try and maintain some grip on reality as his world slowly crumbles around him. This being a film about a film maker, there are many interesting/artsy shots, mostly from Steve’s perspective, navigating his experiences at various stages in his life.
The director Anthony Mandler was previously a celebrity photographer and has also made music videos for the likes of Rihanna. This added a certain youthful energy and style to the flashbacks of Steve’s life but not necessarily to the court room aspects.
Rather than tell the story in blocked off sections, I feel Anthony made a smart of letting all elements of the film run concurrently. So, we see parts of his arrest and incarceration, we then see some of his home life and relationship with his father, mother, and younger brother. We see parts of him at school in lessons and then we see a portion of the trial.
This sequence loops and is mostly maintained throughout the film. I believe it worked well as it lets the audience build on distinct parts of his personality at the same time and produce a more complete picture rather than being told he was a particular type of teen. No one is just one thing, and we get to learn that of this character as the film progresses.
The ‘Monster’ in the title refers to the name the prosecutor called the defendants in court, advising the jury that Steve is not a teenager but a monster who left the shop keeper to bleed out on the floor and drown in his own blood. Monster also refers to Steve’s own analysis of his situation. The way he was treated by the system made him feel at times less than human, like a ‘monster’. He learnt that the idea of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ can be based on a jury’s perception of you.
Monster has an autobiographical feel to it, a diary where Steve goes over his days and actions leading up to the incident, wondering whether he was in fact a monster for not being smarter, for being naive and for making bad choices which ultimately could have contributed to a man’s death.
The idea of guilty by association is not just one used by the legal system but also by parents and educators. ‘Watch the company you keep’ or ‘birds of a feather flock together’ are sayings most people come across while growing up. The question raised by the film is does a bad or questionable association equal guilt? I grew up in an environment similar to Steve Harmon, but in South London, not Harlem.
As a young man, these characters, despite their questionable ethics and possible links to crime can be fascinating case studies. For a person interested in the human psyche, it’s not that unusual to end up in an insightful conversation, learning about a side of the world your parents are either unfamiliar with or trying to shield you from.
Related: Two Distant Strangers is a Time Loop fight for survival against a prejudice officer. See the review here
Certain sections of society will look and only see a ‘gang member’ whilst those growing up in those areas see individuals, some bad, some conflicted. Even if you choose not to converse or interact with these types of characters, it is still often wiser to respond and say ‘hello’ back when spoken to as opposed to ignoring them and risking threats of violence every day, especially when you have a family and a younger sibling.
Steve ends up ‘associated’ with some of these characters. He doesn’t view them as friends though, he almost studies them as if doing research for a screenplay. Does that make him complicit in their future actions, even though he has no knowledge of them?
While Kelvin Harrison Jr certainly gives a moving performance as Steve Harmon, the film also features a great supporting cast including Jennifer Hudson and Jeffrey Wright as his mother and father, the rapper ASAP Rocky as his co-defendant, Hiphop legend Nas as a wise inmate he meets whilst awaiting trial and a surprisingly muted but menacing performance from John David Washington as the villainous Bobo!
As a fan of ‘powerful’ court room dramas, I do wish more has been made of them. The court room can be a great stage for the best legal orators to paint pictures and perform but I don’t feel that happened here. Infact, most of the legal proceedings lacked real spark or energy which is a shame as this is a film about a murder trial and the court case should have taken centre stage.
I found Monster to be an engaging and insightful story about the seemingly small mistakes children can make which could derail the rest of their lives. Teenagers often have trouble seeing the consequences beyond their impulse actions so this might be one for parents and teens to both watch and learn from together
Monster is available now on Netflix -see the Official Trailer for Monster here