In the new Netflix movie “Monster” director Anthony Mandler uses a non-linear structure to tell the story of young black student wrongly charged in the murder of a bodega owner. The film premiered way back at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and was eventually acquired by Netflix. Based on a Walter Dean Myers novel of the same name, “Monster” maneuvers through its sometimes heavy-handed dialogue to deliver a well-meaning and often crushingly effective legal drama.
The film is told from the perspective of 17-year-old Steve Harmon (a terrific Kelvin Harrison Jr.). The film opens a few minutes after he has been arrested for playing a role in the robbery of a Harlem bodega that left its owner dead. As Steve narrates we watch the overwhelmed high school honor student and aspiring filmmaker as he is processed by police. Soon he’s sitting across from his state appointed public defender (Jennifer Ehle). These unsettling early moments set us up for the nearly 100 minutes of tension that comes baked into the material and directly from Mandler’s style of storytelling.
The story (written by Radha Blank, Cole Wiley, and Janece Shaffer) bounces us back-and-forth across the timeline. We visit and revisit Steve’s time in prison, in the court room, at home with his loving parents and young brother, out with his neighborhood friends, and in his high school film class where his dedicated teacher Mr. Sawicki (Tim Blake Nelson) inspires him to follow his dreams. While some of the time-jumping seems unnecessary, it’s ably handled and it does keep the film from feeling like a conventional retread.
The film is driven by the richly layered lead performance from Harrison Jr. who has already established himself as a powerful young actor. Here he manages to channel innocence, ambition, youthful spirit, fear, frustration, hopelessness, and resolve all through a single densely conceived character. The movie also sports a rock-solid supporting cast in addition to Ehle and Nelson. Jeffrey Wright and Jennifer Hudson are really good as Steve’s loving parents. Just as good is Rakim “A$AP Rocky” Mayers who takes a fairly cookie-cutter bad egg part and makes it interesting. We even get John David Washington in a small but menacing role.
Clever touches from cinematographer David Devlin help convey the film’s frequently shifting mood. The harsh sterile grays of the courtroom, the glow of the sun beaming through the neighborhood trees, the warmth of home with his family, the cold isolation of prison. Devlin’s camera takes some of the load off of Harrison Jr. by helping the audience to see things the way Steve sees them.
“Monster” is a timely and thoughtful critique of America’s justice system told with startling clarity from the perspective of a young black man. While the movie landscape has been inundated with these kinds of social dramas, Mandler does enough with a well-worn genre and by-the-books premise to make the movie feel reasonably fresh. It doesn’t completely avoid the cringy on-the-nose dialogue (take the soulless white prosecutor eyeing Steven and coldly uttering “he looks the part to me“), but it tells a moving story and is worth watching for the strong performances alone. “Monster” is now streaming on Netflix.