The question of whether serious juvenile offenders should be tried as adults stands at the heart of “They Call Us Monsters,” which concerns three teenagers facing life in prison for violent crimes. While Ben Lear’s documentary is reasonably clear about its own position on the issue, the film’s material is so thin that it provides few reasons to believe the conclusion it’s selling. The same holds true for its portrait of the role art plays in rehabilitating those in need, a perfunctory thread that leaves the film feeling like merely another drop in the enormous prison-documentary bucket.
In California, violent juveniles between the ages of 14 and 17 can be sentenced as adults, and inside Sylmar Juvenile Hall’s High Security Compound in Los Angeles, high-risk kids facing grave prison terms spend their days and nights waiting to learn their fate. Director Lear (son of legendary TV producer Norman) focuses on three such individuals, circa 2014: 14-year-old Antonio, 16-year-old Juan, and 17-year-old Jarad, all of whom have been charged with attempted and/or first-degree murder. Jovial and talkative, they come across as streetwise but friendly kids, although their gang tattoos speak to their dark pasts — and Antonio’s admission that he feels no remorse for his crime reveals the trio’s underlying anger and defiance that got them here in the first place.
Antonio, Juan and Jarad are enrolled in a 20-week screenwriting course taught by Gabe Cowan, and through clips of their classes and the fictional scenarios they develop, “They Call Us Monsters” reveals the brutal experiences that have informed their lives, and the types of fantasies they find most captivating. Unfortunately, what’s conveyed is of a pedestrian variety — the teens are interested in smoking pot, drinking, and having sex, as well as channeling positive role models. And clips from a Cowan-directed movie of their script offers few insights into what makes them tick, or how artistic creativity might help them reconfigure, or transcend, their current mindsets and impulses.
Lear’s candid footage of the three teenagers certainly creates a sense of intimacy, and interviews with their families indicate that their circumstances are at least partly the result of tumultuous and/or lousy upbringings. Yet whether nurture or nature is to blame, “They Call Us Monsters” fails to make one think they’ve been wrongly incarcerated. Rather, it simply implies — via news clips of debates over a Senate bill about whether kids should face adult sentences, as well as compassionate, warts-free snapshots of the teens themselves — that these impressionable youths deserve a second chance at freedom (even if Antonio’s conduct after being unexpectedly released from custody suggests otherwise).
A few platitudes aside, there’s little actual evidence on display to refute the idea that these are dangerous individuals who should remain behind bars, either as punishment, or as a means of protecting the public. And even though the doc spends scant energy on the victims of the three young men, the few times when it does (a girl has been paralyzed in Jarad’s drive-by shooting) further underline the gravity of their crimes. As a result, for all of the laughs shared by Juan, Antonio, and Jarad — moments meant to hammer home their teenage ordinariness — “They Call Us Monsters” is unconvincing in its attempts to evoke sympathy for their self-inflicted plights.
There may yet be a great documentary made about the fairness of treating teens, judicially, as grown-ups — a thorny issue that often comes down to case-by-case specifics. “They Call Us Monsters,” alas, is so taken with its access to kids facing such legal circumstances that it forgets to form a compelling argument about them.