'They Call Us Monsters': LAFF Review

A haunting and provocative doc.

Norman Lear's son, Ben Lear, directed this documentary that raises disturbing questions about the juvenile justice system in America.

Among the many topical documentaries to make the festival circuit recently, one of the most powerful and eye-opening is They Call Us Monsters, which raises profound questions about the juvenile justice system in this country. Ben Lear, the son of TV legend Norman Lear, directed the film, which takes us inside a juvenile prison in California and introduces us to three teenagers facing life sentences for gang-related crimes. The doc deserves audience attention.

The main focus of They Call Us Monsters is a screenwriting workshop held inside Sylmar Juvenile Prison and managed by Gabriel Cowan, one of the producers of the film. Three kids in particular — Jarad, Juan and Antonio — collaborate on a script and also reflect on the crimes that put them behind bars. The film also looks at efforts in the California legislature to redraft laws for violent juvenile offenders to give them a chance at a life outside prison.

Several legislators declare that these kids committed evil acts and should be treated as adults, while others point out that it is unfair to place unformed teenagers in the same category with hardened adult criminals. There is no simple answer to that debate, and, to its credit, the film doesn’t try to simplify the issues.

Juan is a Hispanic boy who was convicted of murder. He has an infant son living outside prison, and his future seems bleak. Even if he is deemed eligible for parole in a decade or two, he will be instantly deported after his release.

Perhaps the most compelling character is Jarad, a baby-faced, heavily tattooed teen who was convicted of shooting at a van and injuring several people. As he imagines the scenes for his screenplay, we can see that he has a playful wit that doesn’t quite jibe with prosecutors’ depiction of him as a criminal monster. When his case comes to trial, his inexperienced lawyer doesn’t exactly make the best argument for his possible redemption.

Although Jarad is likable, They Call Us Monsters doesn’t gloss over his crimes. Producer Sasha Alpert explained in a Q&A after the pic's LA Film Festival premiere that she felt it was important to honor the victims as well as the perpetrators, and one of the most heartrending scenes shows us a teenage girl who was paralyzed as a result of Jarad’s shooting spree. As she struggles in her wheelchair to retrieve a glass from a cupboard in her home, the moment brings home the terrible consequences of this thoughtless boy’s crime. There is no simple answer to the questions this film poses, but it makes us think about the complexities of an issue that has been muddied by tough-on-crime politicians.

A couple of the characters introduced in the doc don’t get full enough treatment, but we can’t shake the images of these tragically damaged lives. They Call Us Monsters should contribute powerfully to a badly overdue debate about some of the deepest wounds in American society.

Production company: BMP Films
Director: Ben Lear
Producers: Gabriel Cowan, Sasha Alpert, Ben Lear
Executive producers: Jonathan Murray, Gil Goldschein, Todd Rubenstein, Scott Budnick, Ted Dintersmith
Director of photography: Nicholas Wiesnet
Editor: Eli Despres
Music: Ari Balouzian

Venue: LA Film Festival (Documentary Competition)

Not rated, 82 minutes