The New York City courtroom in which, 17-year-old honors student Steve Harmon stands accused of felony murder, isn’t the customary dark wood and tan walls affair. “Monster” there’s a reason beyond stylish production design for the palette of grays. For the involving, nuanced drama — a Sundance 2018 competition title starring Kelvin Harrison Jr. — explores the gray areas of guilt, innocence and criminal justice, especially as they pertain to young Black men, who are too often seen as guilty till proven otherwise. Innocent is likely too much to ask of a system in which young men like Steve are seen as the beasts, as the monsters of the movie’s title.
Streaming on Netflix, “Monster” is based on the 1999 young adult novel by Walter Dean Myers (who died in 2014). The themes of the award-winning book remain timely and are made even more so by screenwriters Radha Blank, Colen C. Wiley and Janece Shaffer.
“Monster” unfolds in the first person. Steve — already in jail awaiting trial — ruminates on his predicament, ponders his own meaning and tries not to give into fears that the nonstop noise and omnipresent menace of prison will be his future. In flashback, we see the life he was living in a changing Harlem with his younger brother, a girlfriend (their low-key banter sweetly spot-on) and his loving parents.
“Monster” is cerebral and emotionally warm without being sentimental. Steve’s thoughts are diaristic. He also relates his experiences in screenplay form. Indeed, Steve is a burgeoning filmmaker. In flashback, he and his high school friends riff with their film club instructor (a sympathetic Tim Blake Nelson) on story and the moving image, aesthetics and point of view. What are they watching? Akira Kurosawa’s classic, “Rashomon.”
First-time feature director Anthony Mandler (along with cinematographer David Devlin and editor Joe Klotz) plies skills honed working in advertising and crafting music videos to create a visually kinetic film that is as much about seeing as it is about being seen, about agency and the racial myopia of American justice.
Steve contemplates his place in a world in which a life of possibility can be so quickly upended. All that stands between him and a long sentence is the work of his public defender, played by Jennifer Ehle, and as she looks for loopholes, Steve wonders about identity: Is he teen or monster, son or monster, brother or…? “Monster” extends these quandaries to viewers. We too must tussle. After all, a man was killed during a robbery gone bad. “Monster” doesn’t let us lose sight of that fact, even as we pull for Steve.
Was he in any way involved? “Monster” keeps viewers asking, even as it gives us glimpses of Black professional-class life we see on television (with shows like “Blackish”) but not nearly as often in movies.
Jennifer Hudson seems slightly squandered here as Steve’s mom. A jailhouse reunion between mother and child finds her apologizing for not having taken him to church. Jeffrey Wright fares better. His jailhouse moment proves quietly crushing. Even as he tries to be strong and supportive, he looks shell-shocked by the turn of events, his own thoughts turning in on themselves, asking “how did this happen?”
Part of the reason we wonder whether Steve might be culpable is that, unlike anyone in the movie, we know he developed a bond with James King, a neighborhood gangster, who is being tried at the same time. Steve had become his visual chronicler of sorts.
Rap artist A$AP Rocky portrays King with a charismatic ease. If King so casually, confidently called you “beloved” the way he does Steve, you too might find yourself in hot water. One of the most vivid (and achy) scenes in “Monster” comes while Steve shoots video of King playing chess, getting his braids combed out, and jawing with an old-timer at the same time. Don’t get too seduced. King is also a bad actor — and not in the thespian sense. It was he who introduced Steve to Bobo (who’s already copped a plea as the trial gets underway). As Bobo, John David Washington has never looked more dangerous. (Jharrel Jerome, the Emmy-winning actor from “When They See Us” rounds out the alleged robbers.)
In a sense, King, Bobo and Steve offer their own shades of gray. When King sits Steve down one evening and describes the subtle goings-on across the street, his observations are a thing of acute — even lyrical — awareness. The scene is a surprising ode to what could have been.
Harrison has a compelling, gently magnetic screen presence. In the past three years, he’s appeared in three very different dramas that seem to speak to each other. The characters may represent a Venn diagram of Black male experiences, but he locates the uniqueness in each. “Luce” (2019), “Waves” (2020) and “Monster” — which was made first but arrives only now — make a powerful triptych. One that encourages audiences to reckon with a complexity — to slay the “monsters” the culture so easily creates.