A young Black man is accused of a crime. He comes from a good family, and everyone in his life is shocked by the crime the police say he committed. But a person is dead. As questions of guilt or innocence swirl, it’s difficult to decide what really happened, who is telling the truth, and where responsibility lies.
That description applies to Monster, director Anthony Mandler’s film that debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018 and released on Netflix in May 2021, but also to two other films that feature the star Kelvin Harrison Jr. During the years that Monster struggled to find distribution, Harrison tackled similar characters in a pair of indie dramas. First was Julius Onah’s Luce, which wonders whether the actor’s titular character — a former child soldier turned exemplary American high school student — was hiding brutality and menace underneath his popularity and academic success. The second was Trey Edward Shults’ Waves, in which Harrison plays a high school senior and promising wrestler whose temper and jealousy get the better of him. It is unfortunate that Monster comes out now, years after the lead’s performances in those two prickly, more challenging films are already affixed in our memories. Even with Harrison situated in what would eventually become a mini niche, Monster struggles to elevate itself past a routine morality play.
Radha Blank, Cole Wiley and Janece Shaffer pen this adaptation of Walter Dean Myers’ acclaimed 1999 young adult novel. Using first-person narration to maintain the book’s diary format, Monster introduces viewers to 17-year-old honors student and film club member Steve Harmon (Harrison) by letting the audience see him as the criminal justice system does. An older white police officer lobs increasingly offensive questions at Steve: What is his gang affiliation? Has he been previously incarcerated? Does he have AIDS? “You have to remain quiet,” the police officer dictates, and soon Steve is being photographed, processed and sent to a New York City jail. The police think he was involved in the murder of a bodega owner, and the life Steve lived before is gone for now, and potentially forever.
Monster then splits focus between the present and the past. As Steve meets with his defense attorney Katherine O’Brien (Jennifer Ehle) and insists upon his innocence, Mandler travels backward by years and months. The film doesn’t attempt to disguise these flashbacks, instead presenting the past in the artistic mediums Steve used as a photography and film student: black-and-white pictures of his friends, abstract vignettes of life around Harlem, playing chess or riding the subway. Harrison’s character is respectful and affectionate toward his parents (Jennifer Hudson and Jeffrey Wright). He’s falling in love with classmate Renee (Lovie Simone), and standing out for promising work in his teacher Mr. Sawicki’s (Tim Blake Nelson) film club. And every so often Steve makes small talk with William King (Rakim “A$AP Rocky” Mayers), a guy who he knows from the neighborhood. They’re not exactly friends, but King has a way of always grabbing Steve’s attention, mugging for his cellphone or his camera, and trying to teach him the ways of the street: loyalty, trust, silence.
When Steve speaks of wanting to be a filmmaker like the Hughes brothers or Spike Lee, King offers a kind of invitation: “That’s why you need to be rolling with me, young blood. I can show you the real shit,” he says. In the present, King sits at a table next to Steve in court, a co-defendant in the murder they’re accused of committing. While district attorney Anthony Petrocelli (Paul Ben-Victor) calls both young men “monsters,” and King mouths threats at everyone who takes the stand against him, Steve is lost in his own world of worry, anxiety and fear. Will others believe his innocence? Or is Steve’s life about to irrevocably change?
Monster hits all the marks of a courtroom drama: Ben-Victor’s Petrocelli is a fast-talking veteran of countless cases like this, with zero sympathy for Steve or Katherine. “He looks the part to me,” he smirks when Katherine says Steve isn’t “who you think he is.” That kind of casual racism comes up over and over again throughout Monster — people who assume ill intent on the part of Steve, who take one look and assume they know what drives or compels him — and although every instance of this is upsetting, it also makes for a certain predictability in Monster. Because these characters are so clearly coded as being incorrect in their assumption of Steve’s guilt, it doesn’t leave much interiority or complexity to the teen; a late-act development isn’t given enough room to expand our understanding of the character with whom we’ve just spent two hours. There is an inherent distress to seeing a young man behind bars, and Monster doesn’t hide from the injustice of situations like this. But it also prefers to have Steve describe the horrors of prison with flat narration rather than show them. There’s certainly a grace to that, because it means Monster doesn’t indulge too much in people’s pain. Yet the approach loses impact quickly, and Harrison’s performance, though believably fragile, doesn’t tap deeply enough into the overwhelming possibility that he might never leave a cell again.
Most indicative of the source material’s YA roots is how Monster, in a consistently heavy-handed way, leans into literary and cinematic references to mirror Steve’s journey. In his film club, Mr. Sawicki lectures his students about a film’s required beginning, middle and end; in his narration, Steve describes his court case as “This is that movie. My story, written, directed, and starring Steve Harmon.” Later on, the students watch the classic Rashomon, and Monster mimics that same shifting-perspectives methodology, cycling between what O’Brien believes about her client, what Steve’s parents believe about their son, and what Steve’s allies (including a fellow inmate played by rapper Nas) and foes (played by John David Washington and Jharrel Jerome) think about the teenager. It’s a drawn-out lesson in the malleability of truth. And by having Nelson repeat that message, practically word for word, after the screening of Rashomon, Monster seems like it doesn’t trust itself to connect with viewers without over-explanation.
“You’re young and you’re Black and you’re on trial. What else do they need to know?” Katherine says to Steve of her skepticism that the jury is taking seriously the “innocent until proven guilty” mandate, but the problem with Monster is how much the film limits itself to that description, too. Perhaps for the young audience for whom Myers’s novel was intended, Monster will be a thought-provoking consideration of stereotypes, due process and morality. Older viewers, though, are probably already acquainted with the lessons in humanity and injustice that Mandler’s film offers.
Roxana Hadadi (@roxana_hadadi) writes about film, television and culture with sides of judgment and thirst. She is a Tomatometer-approved critic on Rotten Tomatoes and a member of the Washington D.C. Area Film Critics Association, the Alliance of Women Film Journalists and the Online Film Critics Society. She holds an MA in literature and lives outside Baltimore, Maryland.