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by Jay Seaver

"Teenagers with machine guns at least makes for good drama."
4 stars

There's a shot in this movie with a pig's head on a stake that seems so unconnected to the rest of the scene that it mostly makes me wonder if "Lord of the Flies" is also required reading in Colombian high schools and the sort of thing that needs to be referenced when you make a story about kids going feral without adult supervision in the middle of nowhere. It's an impressive take on that basic idea, reflecting a world that is more chaotic even if isolation is more difficult.

The kids in the movie are child soldiers, part of an Organization that has them on a mountaintop, given orders by a short, muscular Messenger (Wilson Salazar) to guard "prisoner of war" Doctor Sara Wilson (Julianne Nicholson) and a dairy cow that local farmers have "donated" to the cause. There are eight, led by Lobo (Julián Giraldo), the oldest of the crew: his girlfriend Lady (Karen Quintero), Dog (Paul Cubides), Boom Boom (Sneider Castro), Swede (Laura Castrillón), Bigfoot (Moisés Arias), nervous Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura), and Smurf (Deibi Rueda), the youngest. Messenger has drilled them, but they're teenagers with guns - things will go wrong, and they will not react well to that happening.

From the start, filmmaker Alejandro Landes is more obviously interested in striking images than meticulously-structured chains of events; he opens it with the kids blindfolded, playing a game of soccer where the ball is a bell, moving carefully and then darting after the thing when it moves. It's a wonderfully surreal scene that maybe doesn't directly foreshadow the rest of the film but establishes the kids as capable despite what they lack. It also gives the viewer a chance to look around the initial setting and see how removed it is from the normal world, something that will come into play a few times. He'll soon be contrasting the two teenage girls in the group offering to braid "La Doctora's" hair and the dungeon in which she's kept, with proof-of-life procedures often seeming confusing, like it's not clear to anyone what The Organization is trying to accomplish.

It's enough to hang a story on, though, and Landes makes the events that unfold against this background easy enough to follow. Landes and co-writer Alexis Dos Santos set things up for one thing to lead to another and that to lead to something else, a relatively uncomplicated string but one that still allows things to go in interesting directions and pull from earlier moments if need be. The relatively simple story and short time frame lets the young cast do good work inhabiting the characters and being ready for when things take turns toward the end. Most of them are on their first IMDB credits and come across as impressively authentic nonetheless. It can be tricky work for the more seasoned cast members to fit in, but Julianne Nicholson never seems out of place as the prisoner, holding in just enough to fit in with the younger cast members but always showing a bit more of an adult understanding of the situation.

The film is impressively-mounted and cohesive enough as that I want to dig into the details more; much about The Organization and the rest of the backstory is left vague but intriguing. Things really come together when the audience starts tracking how the child soldiers go from the ruins of a prior civilization in the start to eventually communicating with animal noises, while their captive tries to see them as misguided children until it's no longer possible. As a result, the stories kind of unravel toward the end, becoming diffuse chaos when the audience is expecting order and connection, which is true to the path the film has been on and manages to avoid being anticlimactic.

On the way, "Monos" has exciting moments and enough one thing leading to another to not just be the abstracted art-house movie it sometimes appears to be. It's an odd one that some may feel pushes a bit too much behind the curtain, but more often than not engrossing.

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originally posted: 10/07/19 15:11:31
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2019 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival Boston 2019 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2019 series, click here.

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