A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
“You’re supposed to love your father because your father loves you. How can any man that loves you tell you anything that’s wrong?”—Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) in the 1978 “All in the Family” episode entitled “Two’s a Crowd”
With these words of unguarded honesty, new depths of humanity were illuminated in O’Connor’s prejudiced anti-hero, illustrating how his beliefs have been passed on through generations. It is the moment that moved the show’s creator, Norman Lear, to tears upon revisiting it in Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s documentary, “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You,” and it also sets the tone for another invaluable nonfiction work, “They Call Us Monsters,” the debut feature of Norman’s son, Ben Lear. Though his abilities as a filmmaker are entirely distinctive, Lear shares his father’s gift for bringing dimension and context to people widely deemed by society as monstrosities. He enters the doors of a juvenile hall in Sylmar, California, and finds Jarad, a young man who, at age 12, witnessed his stepfather attempting suicide by stabbing himself in the chest. The stepfather is certain that his actions caused irreparable damage to his son, and can’t help bursting into tears in court as the sentencing is issued for Jarad, who smirks in disbelief. It is clear that these kids are imprisoned in more ways than one.
Antonio, one of Jarad’s inmates, is blindsided by the news that he will be a free man. He speaks with renewed hope about providing his friends at the juvenile hall with a larger-than-life example of the success that they can aspire to achieve, transforming himself into a heroic figure on par with the “blue people in ‘Avatar.’” Yet when he returns to life beyond the prison walls, he finds himself in a house overflowing with toddlers that is destined for eviction. Suddenly, Antonio is homeless, left with little to do but get high and potentially wind up back in jail. It is utterly despairing to observe the cyclical fate of youth in broken communities where impoverishment breeds rage, resulting in the self-destructive outlet of gangs. The members of these gangs are as much victims as they are perpetrators, willfully ignored by a society that has allowed the problems in their communities to fester indefinitely. How can youth be expected to rehabilitate when they have no resources at their disposal? Lear takes this question and weaves it into the greater proposal made by Senate Bill 260, which seeks to give offenders, who committed a crime as minors, the opportunity to work toward parole. Whereas Werner Herzog’s “Into the Abyss” advocated against the cruelty of the death penalty, Lear’s film argues that even criminals charged with murder at age 17 or under shouldn’t be tried as adults and faced with irrevocable life sentences.
There is nothing fair about the lives of these juveniles, but there’s also nothing fair about the fate of a young woman left wheelchair-bound by one of Jarad’s alleged bullets. Lear and editor Eli Despres attempt to build a well-rounded portrait of their subjects’ plight, compiling footage of court hearings and testimonials from their respective families, as well as a key interview with the aforementioned victim. Yet I believe there’s an alternate cut of the film that could’ve easily been contained within the prison itself, focusing solely on the sessions between the juveniles and screenwriting teacher Gabriel Cowan. An accomplished filmmaker in his own right, Cowan is also on the Board of Directors at InsideOUT Writers, a nonprofit that conducts writing classes at juvenile halls. He has volunteered to help these kids craft a script inspired by their own experiences, which he will subsequently direct as a short film. Anytime the documentary cut away from this narrative thread, my heart sank, and with the running time barely clocking in at 80 minutes, it left me wanting many more scenes between Cowan and the kids. What he is giving them is an outlet not only for their creativity, but for their pent-up emotions that would normally lead them toward making bad choices. I was reminded of Destin Daniel Cretton’s great 2013 gem, “Short Term 12,” where counselors at a foster care facility encourage the teenagers in their care to express themselves, whether it be penning a rap song or writing a story with metaphorical flourishes.