Runtime: 97 minutes
Writer/Director: Alexis Gambis
Stars: Tenoch Huerta, William Mapother, Paulina Gaitan, Electra Avellan, Alexia Rasmussen, Noé Hernández
By Morgan Roberts
Science and nature are typically depicted at odds with each other. Sure, there is enough of science trying to recreate and manipulate nature. But is there more to this dichotomy than meets the eye? In Alexis Gambis’ award-winning film, “Son of Monarchs” (2021), the marriage between seemingly opposite ideas and identities unfolds.
Mendel (Tenoch Huerta) is living in New York City, working as a scientist, when he learns his grandmother has died. He goes back home to the butterfly forests of his childhood in Michoacán, a state in Mexico. There, Mendel must confront his past and the merging of his identities in order to re-emerge as the man he strives to be.
The film tackles a lot. I mean, first and foremost, this is the first time I have seen the beauty of Mexico not tainted by an American lens. It is not the images typically seen or celebrated in film. I was simply in awe of the nature and the butterflies. When I spoke with cinematographer Alejandro Mejía for the podcast, I admitted my irrational fear of butterflies; but this film really made me forget all of the things that make me squeamish about them. (Maybe there’s a metaphor in that.) But, it is alarming how frequently we overlook the beauty of Mexico and its people.
Speaking of its people, Gambis and Huerta crafted an amazing lead character in Mendel. When we see the immigrant story in film, we typically see someone coming to the United States entering the workforce in blue collar work. Here, Mendel is a biologist, studying butterflies. It is infrequent that we get to see people of color on screen as white collar, well-educated individuals. And while you do register the rarity at the beginning of the film, it feels very natural by the end.
Huerta is simply incredible in this film. He is a man coming to term with his trauma – and its not the stereotypical trauma we would see – and dealing with his mental health. While not overtly about mental health, we come to understand Mendel as he struggles with his emotions, feeling separate from his family by leaving and feeling separate in his new home due to racial stereotypes projected on to him. We see him bring his past and present together so he can move forward into his future. It is not a loud performance, but one that draws you in so you can truly see this person.
“Son of Monarchs” is a film that truly took me by surprise, not just for the humanness of the story but the way it allowed to shatter my own perspective and stereotypes I unconsciously carry as a person. My hope is that, with a wider release, people will take note of this film and the voices, representation it gives to these characters.