Movie Review - They Call Us Monsters

In 2014, California passed Senate Bill 260, which grants convicted youth the ability to get parole after 15 years. This documentary by Ben Lear looks at that issue and presumably tries to make a case for it. He does so by following several teenagers who have been arrested and who are awaiting trial or some plea deal. SB 260 only applies to juveniles, persons younger than 18 at the time of the crime, who are tried as adults. Mainly, these are juveniles accused of heinous acts like rape and murder.

There are strong psychological and sociological reasons why SB 260 is a good idea, but those reasons are only briefly mentioned here. The majority of the movie seems to be about rebutting the statement from Joel Anderson, the Republican legislator, quoted saying that all these youth offenders are essentially psychopaths or evil. Lear wants to follow the teens and show they're not psychopaths or evil. They're mainly just children.

Lear also interviews the family of the youth offenders, which makes it easier to dismiss comments like the one from Anderson. It's also easy sentimentality to watch as the parents cry as their sons are sentenced. It's all young boys in question. We never see any female offenders, but that sentimentality isn't enough, and by the end, I didn't walk away any more or less convinced that SB 260 should have been passed.

A person's juvenile or underage status feels like it's less of a concern as the various other factors or circumstances at play when it comes to criticisms about the criminal justice system and how certain groups of people are treated. Lear doesn't even provide any statistics or information to put the issue in context. In fact, one teen is released on parole, while the documentary is filming, but he lands right back in prison because he commits new crimes. Lear provides no data on recidivism rates for paroled teens.

Without those distinctions, there's no way to compare this film to others with similar topics, films that delve deeper into the criminal justice system, and specifically incarcerations like Eugene Jarecki's The House I Live In (2012) or Ava DuVernay's 13th (2016). Those two films examine the external forces or the institutions that contribute to increased and unfair, prison populations. Given this movie is more intimate, along side teen prisoners while they're still in prison, Lear could have taken the opportunity to examine the internal forces at work.

Yet, it's clear when Lear interviews the sister of one of the teen offenders. She says the offender's actions, which include attempted murder, are not his fault. Lear doesn't challenge that statement at all. While all the boys featured in this movie come from troubled or impoverished backgrounds, it does no one favors to paint them solely as victims to be coddled as if their actions had no meaning or weren't in some part their own.

Thankfully, Lear's movie doesn't fully tip in that direction. Lear does a segment on one of the actual victims for which one of the boys nearly killed in a shooting. Yesenia Castro speaks after surviving a possibly fatal shooting at the hands of one of the boys in question here. It was great to hear her speak, but it was weird how she never really went into details about what led up to the shooting. Lear is even in the courtroom as the trial is happening and we never get any details about motive or the investigation that led to the arrest. Lear just shows the defense lawyer as incompetent in cross-examination, as if that was what our only takeaway should be. Lear shows his bias by not interviewing the prosecutor in that Los Angeles court house.

Jarad Nava is the teen who is on trial for allegedly shooting Yesenia Castro, nearly killing her, or at least he was in the car that was the subject of the drive-by shooting that nearly killed Castro. He's one of four teenagers who signs up for a screenwriting class in prison. Lear's movie is centered around the 20 classes that the teens have, which lead to the creation of a short film, directed by Gage Cowan, the teacher of the classes. While this is fun, it does little to reveal who Jarad is, how he became involved in gang activity, or what he felt about his role in the crime.

There are two other teens that Lear follows. One is Antonio Hernandez and the second is Juan Gamez. Antonio is the one who gets paroled before he's brought back for other crimes. Juan was allegedly caught on video shooting someone in MacArthur Park. We get glimpses into his life but never a full picture.

Rated TV-MA.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 21 mins.

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