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The HBO series The Night Of told a brutally effective and psychologically layered story of a young New Yorker from a good Pakistani-American family caught up in a nightmarish spiral of criminal justice in which his ethnicity alone rendered him guilty in many eyes. Monster chronicles a similar experience involving a black Harlem high school senior with ambitions to become a filmmaker, who gets charged as an accomplice in a lethal armed robbery. The big difference is that in graduating to features from a busy career in music videos, commercials and photography, director Anthony Mandler can’t get out of his own way.
Based on the 1999 young adult novel by Walter Dean Myers, the film was scripted by Radha Blank, Cole Wiley and Janece Shaffer, who make a colossal error by adhering too closely to the book’s use of a third-person screenplay as a key narrative device.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m living in a movie,” says 17-year-old protagonist Steve Harmon (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) in the first of countless streams of voiceover. “Now that it’s actually happening, all I want to do is find a way to rewrite the story.” Steve proceeds to punctuate the action on and off throughout with shooting-script scene references, in a meta-cinema overlay that serves mainly — and maddeningly — to distance us from the story and its scared-stiff central character.
The bigger problem, however, is Mandler’s insatiable appetite for distracting directorial flourishes. He stretches what should be a taut courtroom thriller into two hours of stylistic tricks that draw attention to themselves while rarely energizing the drama. The director, along with cinematographer David Devlin, shows a sharp eye for interesting visual compositions, and the sleek widescreen images initially are striking enough to make you forgive the purple writing. But the intrusive impact of all that artsy overload and trippy structuring on the movie’s dramatic integrity becomes impossible to ignore. And that happens long before a miscast Tim Blake Nelson as Steve’s high school film-club teacher, Mr. Sawicki, gives a lesson on Rashomon.
Mr. Sawicki keeps banging on in class about how every choice you make as a filmmaker reflects your point of view, your truth. But Mandler barely leaves Steve’s truth any room to breathe.
All that is unfortunate, because emerging talent Harrison gives the movie a pounding human heart and a soulful vulnerability that keep you invested. Even when the 800th funky montage of Steve’s artfully static-distressed black-and-white cellphone videos of his gorgeous girlfriend (Lovie Simone) and their equally photogenic pals makes you glaze over.
Harrison registered strongly in last year’s It Comes at Night, and he has a compelling key role in Monsters and Men, another, far superior dramatic competition entry at Sundance this year. His wounded performance is this overworked film’s saving grace, along with some stirring moments from pros like Jennifer Ehle and Jeffrey Wright.
Steve lives in middle-class comfort with the perfect loving parents (Wright and Jennifer Hudson) and an adorable younger brother (Nyleek Moore). He attends a prestigious public high school and is on track to study film in college. But when a bodega robbery gets messy and the store owner is fatally shot, he is arrested for allegedly having acted as a lookout.
The two guys who carried out the stickup, James King (Rakim Mayers) and “Bobo” Evans (John David Washington, also in Monsters and Men), might as well have “guilty” tattooed on their foreheads. But Steve’s lawyer (Ehle) makes it her mission to have the jury see him for the clean-living kid he appears to be. “Am I a human being?” Steve asks himself after the prosecutor has labeled him a monster.
Maybe it’s a misguided extension of the movie-of-my-life frame, but that snarling prosecutor, like the arresting detective and every vicious-looking thug prowling the prison yard, appears to be straight out of Central Casting. These stock characters are such visual cliches that they remove the menace from a story that calls for less gloss and more grit. There’s a great deal of technical skill in editor Joe Klotz’s furious cutting of the trial scenes. But as much as the frenetic speed and overlapping dialogue serve to convey the dizzying effect of the proceedings on Steve and his anxious parents, that too becomes another show-offy stunt.
Only rarely does Mandler remain focused on Steve’s mounting fear and gnawing introspection long enough to create lasting tension. The film’s best moments are the quiet interludes, like separate prison visits from his father and mother, or private conversations between the accused and his lawyer. But these scenes are seldom given time to resonate. Instead, the action cuts back incessantly to King cozying up to Steve and his camera, sharing his insights into street life in dialogue that suggests an after-school special on life in the ‘hood.
Buried somewhere deep inside this phony, flashy movie there are thoughtful questions of racial identity, ingrained social perceptions, environmental conditioning and codes of masculinity. Some of that is touched on in the friendly advice of an avuncular prisoner, played by rapper Nas, who is also on the producing team. But any thematic coherence is sacrificed to stylistic showboating that keeps taking us out of the story.
It’s difficult to say based on the evidence of Monster whether Mandler has the instincts of a narrative filmmaker. The drama is stuffed full of music video-style inserts with overly literal song choices (Fela Kuti’s “Zombie,” The Persuaders’ “Thin Line Between Love and Hate,” exec producer John Legend’s “Fall From Grace”) and slick sequences that would look right at home in a commercial. Even when he sticks the landing with an emotionally powerful climactic note, the director then turns meta again, providing a couple extra endings, each of them more deadening.
Production companies: Bron Studios, Tonik Productions, Get Lifted Film Co., in association with Red Crown Productions, Charlevoix Entertainment, Creative Wealth Media
Cast: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Jennifer Ehle, Tim Blake Nelson, Nasir ‘Nas’ Jones, Rakim Mayers, Jennifer Hudson, Jeffrey Wright, Paul Ben-Victor, John David Washington, Jharrel Jerome, Dorian Missick, Willie C. Carpenter, Rege Lewis, Jonny Coyne, Lovie Simone, Liam Obergfoll, Mikey Madison
Director: Anthony Mandler
Screenwriters: Radha Blank, Cole Wiley, Janece Shaffer, based on the novel by Walter Dean Myers
Producers: Tonya Lewis Lee, Nikki Silver, Aaron L. Gilbert, Mike Jackson, Edward Tyler Nahem
Executive producers: John Legend, Thais Stiklorius, Dan Crown, Yoni Liebling, Jeffrey Wright, Nasir ‘Nas’ Jones, Brenda Gilbert, Steven Thibault, Brad Feinstein, Joseph Ingrassia, Ali Jazayeri, David Gendron, Linnea Roberts, Jason Cloth, Andy Pollack, Dale Wells, Richard McConnell
Director of photography: David Devlin
Production designer: Jeremy Reed
Costume designer: Mobolaji Dawodu
Music: Harvey Mason Jr.
Editor: Joe Klotz
Casting: Avy Kaufman
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
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