Music video director Anthony Mandler makes an impressive feature directorial debut in Monster from Netflix. An adaptation of Walter Dean Meyers 1999 young adult novel tells the story of Steve Harmon (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), a seventeen-year-old honor student whose world comes crashing down around him when he is charged with felony murder. The film follows the dramatic journey of an intelligent, likable film student from Harlem attending an elite high school through a complex legal battle that could leave him spending the rest of his life in prison.
In Steve’s corner are his supportive parents (Jeffrey Wright and Jennifer Hudson), his understanding lawyer Katherine (Jennifer Ehle), and a wise older inmate named Sunset (Nas). Trying to throw Steve under the jail is Anthony Petrocelli (Paul Ben-Victor), an overzealous prosecutor. Steve also has to deal with the constant stare down from a neighborhood acquaintance Will King (ASAP Rocky), who may or may not turn against Steve to save himself.
From the trailer, I had an assumption of where Monster might go with its storytelling. To my surprise, the movie’s writers Radha Blank, Cole Wiley, and Janece Shaffer take a different approach. Like the novel, the film uses a mixture of a third-person screenplay and a first-person diary format to tell the story through the perspective of Steve Harmon. Director Anthony Mandler shows us Steve early on in the film as he’s processed into jail. The initial moments were uneasy to watch, and in the role of Steve, Kelvin truly makes us feel for his character.
The emotion that Harrison gives is all in the young actor’s eyes. It’s clear that Steve doesn’t belong, and he has become a victim of circumstance. I commend the director and film writers for avoiding full-on physical trauma in the movie just for the sake of streams. There’s never a moment in the movie where Steve’s manhood is violated in prison, nor a moment where the police rough him up. Instead, Monster’s script and director tap into a realistic approach to a court case and the events that precede it.
We see flashbacks of Steve and his interactions with Will King (ASAP Rocky). Primarily known for his music, ASAP Rocky made his acting debut in 2015’s Dope. ASAP Rocky plays a similar role here but shows continued promise as an actor and has excellent chemistry with Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s Steve. Watching the film, I saw myself in Steve and thought about my daily conversation with the older knuckleheads from the community I grew up in. Kelvin Harrison Jr. continues to impress as an actor, and he actually completed Monster before some of his other films we’ve seen him in in recent years.
The supporting cast is vital in their roles, particularly Paul Ben-Victor and Jennifer Ehle as the opposing lawyers; I also enjoyed Jeffrey Wright and Jennifer Hudson as Steve’s parents. Hudson and Wright don’t have a ton to do, but both are good when they are on the screen. There are also notable cameos from John David Washington, Tim Blake Nelson, and Jharell Jerome, all of whom play a part in Steve’s story.
My one complaint about Monster is the underwritten relationship between Steve and Sunset (Nas). The two have a significant moment in the film with great dialogue, so I wanted to see more interaction between then. Monster features strong acting and a realistic message that may be a bit too authentic for some. However, I do recommend the film.
Final Grade: B
Monster is streaming on Netflix now