They Call Us Monsters
Director Ben Lear Genre Documentary
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Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 22 minutes.
Story By Ben Kenigsberg -Jan. 19, 2017
“They Call Us Monsters,” directed by Ben Lear (Norman Lear’s son), might seem like a straightforward advocacy documentary. It concerns juveniles in California, accused of violent crimes, who are facing trial as adults with the prospect of spending the rest of their lives in prison.
But the movie benefits from an added layer: A screenwriting teacher who gets to know three teenagers awaiting trial.
The teacher, Gabriel Cowan (also a producer of the film), leads a workshop at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in the Sylmar neighborhood of Los Angeles. Together, he and the three inmates — Juan Gamez, Jarad Nava and Antonio Hernandez (Mr. Hernandez is released partway through the movie) — write a screenplay for a short film Mr. Cowan plans to make, inspired by the teenagers’ lives. We see excerpts from the result.
The process of transforming real details into fiction seems to make the young men especially introspective. A scene in which Juan calls a girl he had a crush on, while a listening staff member roots for him, provides the film’s most oddly affecting moment.
“They Call Us Monsters” doesn’t shy from the consequences of the violence the prisoners were accused of (we meet a paralyzed victim of a shooting), even as it suggests that the system — from a state senator who warns of “mini-Charlie Mansons” to lawyers resigned to stiff sentences — proceeds almost mechanically.
The documentary might gain from longer-term or return treatment, particularly now that a California bill offering early parole hearings, under consideration for much of the film’s running time (and shown passing in 2013), has taken effect.
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