Evaluation: Long-delayed, beautifully crafted ‘Monster’ is, unfortunately, timelier now than ever
Don’t be put off by the generic and overused — if ultimately appropriate — title. “Monster” is an excellent film: a strong, absorbing, amazingly performed and crafted interpersonal drama that, unfortunately, proves even timelier today compared to when it was shot within 2017. (The movie, initial seen at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival in a relatively longer version, was as soon as set for a 2019 theatrical release but eventually ended up at Netflix, where it premieres Friday. )
Based on the 1999 youthful adult novel of the same name by Walter Dean Myers , the film follows the travails of 17-year-old Steve Harmon (Kelvin Harrison Jr. ), a budding filmmaker who lives with his adoring, vigilant parents (Jeffrey Wright, Jennifer Hudson) and youthful brother (Nyleek Moore) in Harlem but attends Stuyvesant High, an elite magnet school in Lower Manhattan.
He’s a smart, gifted, careful kid with a bright future. That is, until, apparently out of the blue, he’s charged with felony murder in connection with the particular death of a nearby bodega owner during a violent robbery.
Steve, naturally , pleads innocent to promises that he was the “lookout” during the crime committed by charismatic neighborhood gangster James Master (Rakim Mayers, a. okay. a. rapper ASAP Rocky ), and King’s surly accomplice, Richard “Bobo” Evans (John David Washington).
But with little recourse, the terrified teen is sent to a brand new York prison to wait for trial for his supposed crime, as his serious attorney (Jennifer Ehle) works on his defense. Despite his apparent innocence, the attorney explains why he’s in for an uphill battle: “Half that jury … made a decision that you’re guilty as soon as they laid eyes on you. You’re young, you’re Dark and you’re on test. What else do they need to know? ” It’s the piercing scene that, in one fell swoop, deftly encapsulates the Black experience within America’s criminal justice system.
Anthony Mandler, making his feature directing debut after a prolific profession in commercials and music-video, effectively shuttles between the amount of Steve’s trial and his everyday routine leading up to it: We observe his warm relationships along with family, friends, girlfriend (Lovie Simone), film club instructor (Tim Blake Nelson) and especially his camera, through which this individual studies the world around him.
And it’s this love of capturing images that first connects him to the kinetic and compelling King, who engages Steve as a cool photographic subject matter — and a kind of arm’s-length trust forms between them. It is one of several well-developed threads that will weave together to entrap Steve and further complicate their legal defense. Suffice to express, there are several intriguing twists.
The script, simply by Cole Wiley, Janece Shaffer and Radha Blank (written before she blew up with “The Forty-Year-Old Version” ), places forth the story’s several cogent points and findings with urgency and vitality, avoiding the sort of didactic messaging a less dimensional take might have prompted.
A classroom debate of Akira Kurosawa’s popular psychological crime drama, “Rashomon, ” could have come off since heavy-handed but , as introduced here, proves a prescient fit for one of “Monster’s” key themes: “Embrace your point of view and tell the truth — as you know it. ”
Similarly, Mandler’s stylish visual sense rarely overtakes or undermines the particular proceedings but rather helps immerse us in Steve’s camera-lens view of his globe in ways that feel each authentic and evocative.
Harrison , in his 1st lead role before gaining widespread acclaim in such movies as “Luce” and “Waves” (he’s also appeared in the TV series “Godfather of Harlem” and as Fred Hampton within “The Trial of the Chicago, il 7”), infuses Steve (and the character’s stirring narration) with a powerful, affecting mix of pain, fear, desperation, intelligence and introspection. He’s a deeply watchable actor.
Other cast associates who shot to popularity soon after making this movie include Washington (“BlacKkKlansman, ” “Tenet, ” “Malcolm & Marie”) and Jharrel Jerome (an Emmy winner for the Main Park Five miniseries “When They See Us”), just who plays a 15-year-old swept up in King’s dangerous planet.
Wright is typically superb as Steve’s dedicated, graphic designer dad; Paul Ben-Victor is spot-on because the trial’s aggressive, needling prosecutor; and rap icon Nasir “Nas” Jones impresses in a small but pivotal role as an inmate who befriends the imprisoned Steve.
“Monster” is a gripping plus important film that instructions and earns our interest.
Rating: R, for language throughout, some violence and weakling images
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes
Playing: Available May seven on Netflix