In California, violent juveniles between 14-17 years old can be tried as adults. For some, this makes absolute sense. For others, it's absolute nonsense to hold a child, even a violent one, to the same behavioral standards as an adult. Typically, when a juvenile between the ages of 14-17 is tried as an adult it's because of the seriousness of their crime and the impact it had on the victim and/or the victim's surviving loved ones.
What is our responsibility to these kids? Can they actually be helped? Should they be? What's our responsibility to their victims? It's questions like these that trouble legislators nationwide as they attempt to reform the juvenile justice system.
In Benjamin Lear's They Call Us Monsters, three teenagers are captured behind the walls of The Compound writing a movie as they await their trials.
Juan was arrested at age 16 and is facing 200 years to life for first-degree murder; Antonio was arrested one month after his 14th birthday and is facing 90 years to life for two attempted murders; and Jarad, a rather innocent looking teenager with a compelling personality whose portrayal by prosecutors as a monster doesn't quite jibe with the young man we're seeing on the screen. Yet, wisely, Lear doesn't avoid the heinous nature of any of the crimes allegedly committed by these young men but instead simply seeks to ask difficult questions about situations with no easy answers.
If there's a weakness to be found in They Call Us Monsters, it's likely that in trying to present a balanced presentation in the film that examines every side of the issue Lear has perhaps simply tried too hard and created a film that somewhat overreaches and, at times, dilutes its impact.
This is a minor, quibble, really because what Lear does really well, perhaps uncomfortably well for some, is humanize these young men at the center of its story. Lear doesn't excuse their actions, but he also doesn't simply paint the issue as a black-and-white one. There are complexities beyond what a nearly 90-minute film can address, but Lear obviously is working hard to layer the film in such a way that the issues are both personal and universal.
Lear, the son of Norman Lear, has painted a realistic yet grim and rather sad depiction of the environmental factors and influencers that helped create these young men called "monsters." Jarad, for example, was a fun and loving brother in Pomona, CA until getting involved with the wrong crowd while Juan's El Salvador upbringing included being initiated into gang life by his brother. Juan now has an infant son on the outside, though there's a good chance the son could be an adult before Juan sees freedom.
As a state, California has long been one of the leading voices for sentencing reform. They Call Us Monsters looks at recent legislation and what it all means, while the film also looks at recidivism and the issue of rehabilitation. The film's scenes involving those attending Gabriel Cowan's screenwriting class are for the most part effective, though an argument could be made that they at times lighten the subject matter a tad too much.
Truthfully, I don't agree and I'd say that's part of the film's stronger impact. Too many films portray those who do bad things as simply "bad people." Over and done. Lear doesn't do that. With They Call Us Monsters, we grow to understand that these young men and their victims are all human beings and the issues are far more complex that simply the thin line between good and evil. The film has a leaning I'd say, though it's for the most part fairly portrayed, and Lear's attention to both bureaucracy and behavior helps to make the film both intellectually satisfying and emotionally resonant.
They Call Us Monsters is a Finalist for Best Documentary Feature at the Heartland Film Festival and screens eight times throughout the festival. For information on screening dates and times, visit the Heartland Film Festival website.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic