Like reading books or wandering an art gallery, one of the best aspects of film is its ability to transport us to worlds and experiences that we’d never otherwise experience for ourselves. That may seem like the world’s most obvious statement about creative endeavors, but as any avid filmgoer knows, actually achieving that sense of escape and wonder is something quite rare (and, admittedly, not the aim for every feature film). Directed by Alejandro Landes (who co-wrote with Alexis Dos Santos), Monos captivates from the outset; its story of teenage rebels in a remote mountain outpost is as thought-provoking as it is engaging, as much visual accomplishment as a strong ensemble piece.
Without much context at all, we meet the ragtag team of soldiers training on the side of the mountain where they live, work and, it’s soon revealed, keep watch over an American captive they call Doctora (Julianne Nicholson). They’re part of a larger rebel group, the Organization, and an officer pops in from time to time to keep the group in line and on task. By day, they train and work; by night, these kids (because really, that’s what they are) let loose, playing and laughing and letting off steam. By all accounts, they treat their captive well and generally respect the order and hierarchy of their stations. It all goes awry, however, when one of them accidentally kills the cow the officer brought them, a resource meant to provide sustenance and teach responsibility.
The misstep reveals cracks in the regiment’s sense of order and relative calm, as loyalties are questioned and weaknesses creep to the surface. An ambush by opposing forces only complicates things further, as the group (or what’s left of it) must relocate to the cover of the nearby jungle in order to stay alive. Already thinning, the change of scenery further diminishes the group’s connections and allegiances; when Doctora makes a run for it, each of the soldiers reacts differently, some paying for her disobedience more than others.
It’s a safe bet that no one reading this will ever experience life as a rebel in the wild (or as their captive), which makes Landes’s visceral exploration of their lives that much more fascinating. Navigating their egos, their evolving political beliefs and their hormones, the soldiers (mostly boys, but a few girls as well) are just trying their best to play the cards they’ve been dealt, unsettling as they may be. Balancing the intensity of their experiences (and Doctora’s harrowing one), Landes and cinematographer Jasper Wolf create a breathtaking sense of place in the lush natural scenery of the mountains and the jungle, landscapes teeming with life even as the characters struggle to survive.
Monos was featured at the 2019 Chicago Critics Film Festival back in May, an event curated by members of the Chicago Film Critics Association that screens the best films of the year in the span of a single week. It was an astute addition.
Monos is now playing at the Music Box Theatre.
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