Review by Camden Ferrell
Anthony Mandler is a renowned voice and has directed music videos for some of the world’s biggest artists. Monster is his debut feature film that premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and is based on the novel of the same name by Walter Dean Myers. This movie features a talented cast and packs an emotional punch despite its narrative shortcomings and flaws.
Steve Harmon is a 17-year-old honors student as well as a passionate filmmaker. However, his life spirals out of control when he is accused of murder and put on trial. Now, he must navigate his legal battle, facing serious jail time. This is a great set up for a courtroom drama, and its lead character provides a unique perspective that the genre doesn’t always have.
The screenplay, written by Janece Shafer and Colen C. Wiley, lays a decent foundation for the actors to work off of. This is both of their first feature screenplay, and it shows a lot of promise for them as writers. It tackles the intense subject matter and develops the humanity of the protagonist in creative ways. The actual courtroom scenes aren’t as engaging as they could have been, and it suffers from dialogue problems throughout, but it’s commendable nonetheless.
Kelvin Harrison Jr. leads this film as Steve Harmon. He has proven in two recent performances (Luce and Waves) that he is one of this generation’s most talented and promising young stars. This performance doesn’t stand out as one of his bests, but he still gives another good performance of a teen in crisis. One of the surprise highlights of the film is the performance of Jeffrey Wright who plays Steve’s father. He doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but he makes the most of it. He has one absolutely stellar scene in the film with Harrison Jr. that is emotional and memorable.
Despite the talented cast working on this movie, it still suffers from some pacing problems. Its non-linear story works well in the last half of the film, but it feels too disjointed in the beginning. There are moments that could have been explored more and others that didn’t feel essential to the story. Luckily, the film does hit its stride around the halfway point to make up for it.
Mandler’s previous work as a director of music videos seems to have influenced the filmmaking aspect of the protagonist. It was nice to see Steve’s creativity and aesthetic interwoven with the legal drama that was unfolding. The message of telling your truth and letting your voice be heard is a little too on the nose, and it does indulge itself a little too much in that regard, but it’s a unique angle that makes this film feel fresh.
The themes and morals that are expressed in this movie are noble, but it also feels like certain narrative choices seem to contradict what it’s trying to say and somewhat undermine the message. It’s not an unforgivable flaw, but it is one that is noticeable. However, there is enough working in the movie’s favor to compensate in this narrative problem.
Monster features some talented actors in a somewhat familiar courtroom drama. Mandler’s direction offers his unique perspective into the story and makes for an enjoyable yet flawed movie.
Monster is now streaming on Netflix.