Review: A Black teen on trial in Netflix drama ‘Monster’

“ Monster,” a courtroom drama starring Kelvin Harrison Jr., Jeffrey Wright, Jennifer Hudson and Jennifer Ehle that’s premiering Friday on Netflix isn’t actually new at all.

Yes, it’s adapted from an acclaimed book by the trailblazing author Walter Dean Myers about a Black teen who is in prison for the possible murder of a Harlem drugstore owner. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January of 2018 and has been sitting on various shelves since. It was acquired by one company, re-titled and planned for a fall 2019 release. But that didn’t pan out and then late last year Netflix swept in and took it.

It’s not a huge problem for the film itself, which is a solid debut even if it can be a little dull and too sleek at times. But it does feel ever so slightly dated and disconnected from the protests and movements of the past year and knowing the context helps explain why.

Harrison Jr. plays Steve Harmon, a well-off Harlem teenager who’s been accused of being involved in a bodega robbery that ended in the owner’s murder. He’s on the security footage and the others involved have also said he was there. We see flashbacks to the days leading up to the incident, letting us know about his nice, untroubled life where he splits time between a prestigious high school where he studies film and at his beautiful home with his supportive parents (Hudson and Wright) interspersed with his real-time imprisonment and trial.

It’s the first feature from director Anthony Mandler, a prolific and influential celebrity photographer, commercial and music video director, who has worked with everyone from Nike to Beyonce. Mandler makes “Monster” look beautiful, perhaps too beautiful at times, employing glossy commercial ready techniques that will certainly rub some the wrong way. There’s no doubt that he knows how to compose a shot and make a great-looking film.

Where “Monster” stumbles is in its pacing. The book was adapted for the screen by Colen C. Wiley, Janece Shaffer and Radha Blank (whose 2020 Sundance film “The Forty-Year-Old Version” made it to Netflix before this). At times it’s contemplative and poetic and there is a particularly harrowing scene, deep into the film, where you see the circumstances of Steve’s arrest. Heck, there’s even some “Rashamon” discussions with his film teacher (Tim Blake Nelson). But at other points, it is simply a procedural and not a terribly engaging one at that since the audience is intentionally left in the dark about what he did or didn’t do. This is how the book is structured as well, with Steve narrating his own story and waiting to reveal the whole truth.

“Monster” is a commentary on the prejudgments that society makes about Black teenagers accused of crimes. Even Steve’s lawyer (Ehle) has limited hope that they’ll win. The jury, we’re consistently told, is unconvinced too, and may have already made up their minds against him. But as an audience member, there’s never that conflict — you never have any doubt that you’re rooting for Steve even as the ambiguity is teased out. Harrison Jr. can’t help but be empathetic — he is superb in the role and masterfully conveys fear and deep anguish in the sometimes-tedious trial scenes. Between “Luce,” “Waves” and this, it’s a wonder why he isn’t a bigger star.

Despite some shortcomings though, “Monster” remains a worthy watch if just for Harrison’s performance. And hopefully Mandler will get another shot at a film soon, as well, and that this time it won’t sit on a shelf for three years.

“Monster,” a Netflix release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “language throughout, some violence and bloody images.” Running time: 98 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.

MPAA Definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr

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