Juvenile prison documentary struggles for larger point

  • The documentary "They Call Us Monsters" centers on three teenage boys in a juvenile detention center.

    The documentary "They Call Us Monsters" centers on three teenage boys in a juvenile detention center.

By Michael O’Sullivan
The Washington Post
Posted2/3/2017 6:00 AM

The miscreants alluded to in the title of the documentary "They Call Us Monsters" are a trio of teenage boys, incarcerated in a California juvenile detention facility for charges ranging from attempted murder to actual murder.

Although they're children, they have been charged with doing some pretty monstrous things. The baby-faced Antonio, for instance -- who was arrested one month after his 14th birthday for two attempted murders -- says he feels no remorse.


Juan, who has been charged with fatally shooting a man three times at point-blank range, says, "I really was a monster. I really was." Jarad left a teenage girl in a wheelchair after a drive-by shooting.

What to make of Ben Lear's documentary, which follows the three boys over the course of a prison screenwriting workshop they participate in with filmmaker Gabriel Cowan, who is also one of the film's producers? During these workshop sessions, the boys suggest characters and scenes for a short film that was ultimately made (several scenes from which are intercut with the documentary footage). Antonio, Juan and Jarad seem very ordinary during these classes, and yet also ... very much not.

Missing from Lear's film is much-needed context about the efficacy of rehabilitation vs. society's desire for punishment -- not to mention the need to keep violent offenders off the street. Although the director includes an interview with a psychologist explaining how adolescence is analogous to a temporary form of "mental illness," it is hard to know what the film's larger point is.

Even if you agree with the film's argument that teenagers shouldn't be locked up for life when there are other ways to save them, "Monsters" doesn't offer a convincing argument that a screenwriting class is that lifeline. If there's one dominant emotion in the film, it is one of regret -- even if the boys at the center of this thoroughly demoralizing tale aren't capable of feeling much.

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