“Son of Monarchs” has a lot on its mind. When Mendel (Tenoch Huerta), a biology grad student living in New York City, returns to his home town in Mexico to pay his respects to his late grandmother, old wounds he’d kept at bay resurface. Yet Mendel’s story becomes but a way for writer-director Alexis Gambis to map out an urgent plea about the effects of climate change, among many other timely concerns. As if wanting to give us a key to decipher his often clipped and dreamlike sensibility, Gambis offers us plenty of didactic moments throughout. Like when an artist explains she believes “we live in a time where social and environmental issues can’t really be treated separately anymore.” The line may well be a thesis statement for the film, capturing its intriguing concepts as well as it’s all too blunt rhetoric.
Brimming with ambitious ideas about collapsing abstractions around issues of immigration and conservation, genetics and ecology into a character study of a young man processing his grief over his recently deceased grandmother back in Mexico, Gambis’ feature often feels too cerebral for its own good. Gambis, a biologist as well as the founder of the Imagine Science Film Festival, goes through great lengths in “Son of Monarchs” to present science as a modern aesthetic through which to think through the world’s greatest challenges.
Which is not to say the film is entirely a concept-driven proposition. Mendel (played as a young boy by Kaarlo Isaacs in the many interspersed flashbacks) may be an impassive mask of stoicism at his grad program where he’s working on mapping the genetics behind the monarch butterfly’s wing pigments, but his knotted emotions about feeling alienated from his home, his traditions, and his family anchor some of the film’s more touching moments. “Narcos: Mexico” actor Huerta, who’s front and center for much of the film, makes the adult Mendel’s melancholy sing, slowly revealing himself to us (and to himself) over the course of the film — not unlike, it must be noted, those very butterflies he studies in darkened NYU hallways.
Indeed, as Mendel reconnects with old friends (who stage animalistic mourning rituals), clashes with his brother (who’s coped with their shared trauma in decidedly different ways) and seduces a young woman (an immigration lawyer, naturally), all while reminiscing about his idyllic childhood spent with his late grandmother, “Son of Monarchs” leans hard into the thematic weight of its titular figures. For the monarch butterfly is as multivalent a metaphor as Gandis could conjure up.
With ties to Mexican lore about aging ancestors and framed here as the core of cutting-edge genetic research, the monarchs teem with rich thematic potential. Add in their migratory patterns, their ethereal beauty and their fragile ecosystems, however, and the insects’ figurative power starts to feel overdetermined. Mendel, after all, flew out of his rural home in Mexico and migrated up north, going through his own kind of transformation before finding himself adrift, caught up urging his estranged brother to encourage his young nephews to pursue their dreams and let them fly as they wish, all while slicing up specimens in order to advance his academic career.
Aided by Cristobal MarYa’s modern and elegiac synth score and Alejandro Mejía’s oneiric cinematography, “Son of Monarchs” at times plays like an experimental film trying to find its rhythms, alternating between heady and earthy voiceovers that are meant to paper over the shifts in mood and place with naturalistic scenes that anchor us in the film’s contemporary setting (“The guy’s not my president. Do I look orange to you?”). Images of Mendel sleeping surrounded by butterflies in his bed as he has nightmarish dreams about drowning, for instance, are meant to evoke his trauma over having lost his parents to a mining flood as a child. Meanwhile, trapeze classes where Mendel has to let go and feel himself fly butt up against conversations about how he wishes he could have the gift of flight — all before deciding to get a tattoo of these winged creatures and perhaps do more than just dream of becoming one with them. In moments like those, you can’t help but feel like these motifs are being driven into the ground.
As “Son of Monarchs” careens towards its mystical denouement, cutting to credits before fully committing to the magical realism it flirts with, one can hardly help but admire Gambis’s narrative gambit. His attempt at creating not just a cinema about ecology but a kind of ecological cinema — one that could help audiences understand how the interconnectedness between grief, immigration and genetics is at once an aesthetic and a political problem about conservation — is revelatory. Like those artists Mendel observes performing their research, Gandis is a filmmaker charting new ways of telling stories that connect environmental concerns with personal ones and which sees the two as inherently intertwined. If the end result is at once too obtuse and too didactic, it nevertheless remains a powerful, necessary intervention whose intellectual rigor and emotional heft cannot be denied.