Director Anthony Mandler earned his stripes making music videos for an authoritatively diverse bunch of artists, including Beyoncé, Rihanna, Justin Bieber, The Weeknd, Jay-Z, the Spice Girls, and Jennifer Hudson, whom he has enlisted in Monster, this feature debut. However, in what appears to be a steadfast attempt to craft a narrative that utilises the aesthetics he has in his bag of tricks, he’s somewhat sabotaged any attempt the film had to truly resonate. Monster would have benefited from some creative restraint.
Steve Harmon (Kelvin Harrison Jr) is a 17 year-old with a bright future, which might have been extinguished by his apparent participation in the robbery of a Harlem bodega – a robbery that resulted in the murder of the store’s operator. His association with the event is teased out in flashbacks, intercut with his subsequent trial. These flashbacks demonstrate Steve’s filmmaking aspirations, which is an all too conspicuous justification for the production’s visual flair.
A great number of Mandler’s creative choices work, and most efficiently so. This is notably the case during the numerous courtroom scenes, with the scene smash cutting back and forth between the defence and prosecution as they outline their cases, while a Steadicam pirouettes around them and unexpected musical cues bombard the ears. Other choices can be considered to be noble miscalculations. Steve points out that he feels as though he’s living in a movie, going so far as to describe scenes in a screenplay format, while they’re being played out onscreen. It’s disruptive, and abruptly derails any narrative momentum. This is disheartening, because this is a film that’s truly attempting to say something about the obvious blunt force trauma of being a young black man navigating his way through the US criminal justice system.
As Steve, Kelvin Harrison Jr is strikingly affecting, demonstrating restraint largely absent from what goes on around him. He’s burdened with some narration of questionable merit, often sounding like he’s attending an amateur poetry slam. The actor is aided by an impressive supporting cast, including Jennifer Hudson as his mother, the always soothing Jeffrey Wright as his father, and Tim Blake Nelson as his teacher – none of whom have much to do, but they do it very well. Monster attempts significance, and luckily abstains from drawing simplistic conclusions, but the artistic construction of the film undermines the potential potency of the story.
Monster is released on Netflix on 7th May 2021.
Watch the trailer for Monster here: