Film Review: Son of Monarchs

Year: 2020

Runtime: 97 minutes

Director: Alexis Gambis

Writer: Alexis Gambis

Actors: Tenoch Huerta, Noe Hernandez, Alexia Rasmussen, William Mapother

By Tom Moore

Outside of filmmaking, writer/director Alexis Gambis also works as a biologist and his newest film, “Son of Monarchs”(2021), brings these two worlds together in a personal story about facing past trauma.

The film follows a Mexican biologist living in America named Mendel (Tenoch Huerta) who returns to his hometown settled within the vast, butterfly filled forests of Michoacan after his grandmother dies. This return causes Mendel to reflect on his life and confront past trauma he’s let boil within him. Now, we’ve seen plenty of self-discovery films like “Son of Monarchs” before that tell touching stories about facing your past by returning home and unfortunately the film can be tough to easily connect with at times. It’s slice of life story generally feels ambiguous and aimless and would’ve benefited from more depth to conversations surrounding Mendel’s life in America during the Trump presidency just to add more engaging, timely elements to his story. Also, some of the moments that delve into the science of Mendel’s butterfly research aren’t exactly the most accessible for non-science aficionados.

However, Gambis still makes “Son of Monarchs’” personal story touching and the visual elements surrounding the scientific and fantasy-driven nature of the butterflies work well in elevating Mendel’s arc. There’s something oddly fascinating about watching Mendel work in his science setting as the visuals of him dissecting cocoons and working with butterfly genetics are eye-catching and almost have this fantasy feel that matches some of the imagery seen in flashbacks to Mendel’s childhood. Cinematographer Alejandro Mejia makes the Michoacan forest and really all of Mendel’s time in his hometown super atmospheric and full of unique energy. Throughout the film there’s this warmth that can be felt in the different groups, both his American friends and coworkers as well as his Mexican family and friends.

The only aspect of Mendel’s life that’s much colder is his relationship with his brother Simon (Noe Hernandez) as a past incident and their diverging life paths have severed their relationship. Although there isn’t much direct interaction between them throughout the film, flashbacks to their childhood and Mendel’s internal struggle of the past eating away at him create this connection between them. It builds their story and traumatic past through Mendel’s transformative arc that revolves around him gaining new perspectives on family and his upbringing. It’s done well visually with how the butterfly imagery leaves a deep impact on Mendel and how his other relationships influence him to look deeper in his life. It all leads to a very emotional reconciliation between Mendel and Simon that opens old wounds in an emotional way and gives a satisfying conclusion to their conflict.

Mendel’s personal journey to facing his past is constantly elevated by Huerta’s performance. Huerta is actually in a great breakout for his career leading Blumhouse projects like “Madres” and “The Forever Purge” and is someone that MCU fans should get to know since he’s currently rumored to be playing Namor/Sub-Mariner in “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”. “Son of Monarchs” acts as another great breakout moment for Huerta as he excellently evokes the deep-seeded conflict within Mendel. There’s a level of discomfort that can be felt within Mendel the second he arrives back in his hometown and Huerta makes that persist throughout to showcase Mendel’s unresolved issues with his past. He really makes Mendel feel haunted even in more positive moments and excels at letting Mendel’s pain out in very engaging ways that tug at your heart – especially when it comes to the resolution with Simon.

Even for its ambiguity and aimlessness in its storytelling, “Son of Monarchs” still manages to tug at your heart with its personal and cultural story of finding peace with your past that’s a strong dramatic showing of why Huerta is a breakout star everyone should be keeping their eyes on.

3.5 stars

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