At one point in Alexis Gambis’s new film, “Son of Monarchs,” the lead character, Mendel, ghosts his girlfriend. Eventually he reconnects with her and instantly acts very badly over a dinner. Seemingly without explanation, this issue evaporates and the two are then as happy as ever. Everything has seemingly been fixed even if we do not know how or why. Although some relationships may work like this, the depiction here is frustrating and the sequence but one example of the start-and-stop storytelling the film presents.
Mendel (Tenoch Huerta Mejía as an adult and Kaarlo Isaacs as a child), amongst other things, is a scientist born in Mexico and currently living in New York studying the genetics of butterflies. Specifically, after growing up in a town to which monarchs regularly travel, he is examining the genes that control their pigmentation. And his parents died at a young age. And although he liked his brother, Simón (Noé Hernández as an adult and Ángel Adrián Flores as a child), when the two were young, they don’t get along anymore. And he used to like pretending to be animals with his friend when they were young. And he has a different friend in New York who is studying flies. And he dreams of drowning. And his aforementioned girlfriend, Sarah (Alexia Rasmussen), spends some of her free time learning the trapeze.
There is, undoubtedly, a thread which can connect all these ideas. It is one that deals with borders and transformation and flying. There is something about growth in there as well, definitely on a personal level and potentially on much larger one. Gambis’s effort asks the viewer to connect it all, to work it all out for themselves.
There is nothing inherently wrong in forcing the audience to work to understand meaning, but too often, we are kept at an arm’s length from Mendel and Simón’s history, from their arguments, from whatever happened to their town and their parents. Some answers do come, but they are few and far between.
As we watch and see Mendel’s various actions over the course of the film, it becomes clear that some sort of metamorphosis is taking place. The movie is so heavily invested in butterflies and the transformation of this man’s life that to deny such a thing would be the height of foolishness. The problem is that as interesting as some aspects of the movie may very well be, there is not enough present to make us want to spend the time diagraming out the various stages, working through the various arguments, synthesizing the bits and pieces of story into a cohesive whole.
For all the troubles we have with the goings-on, Mejía himself offers up a complex, deep, character. We may not have answers readily available, but Mendel definitely does and makes as much clear. We fully believe that the experiences which we see Isaacs’s version of the character undergo translate into this adult with whom we spend so much time. The performance, however, is not enough to make the film a complete success.
This remains true even when combined with the beautiful cinematography. Some of the shots we get in the film, particularly the close-up look at butterfly wings, are wholly mesmerizing. Many of the landscapes are equally great. Whether “Son of Monarchs” is depicting something on either a macro or a micro scale, it succeeds in being arresting.
To its credit, “Son of Monarchs” feels smart. Much like Mejía’s performance, we get the sense that someone has constructed the full argument and then taken it apart piece by piece to show elements of it to the audience. It feels like there is greatness there, it just hasn’t emerged from its chrysalis.
photo credit: WarnerMedia One Fifty