Son Of Monarchs

***1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Son Of Monarchs
"A film that, while laudably ambitious, struggles to stop its ideas from becoming so unruly that they squabble with each other for attention." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The monarchs of the title refer to the butterflies, which travel up to 2800 miles as part of their migration from North America to Mexico, and the idea of the migratory urge flits through Alexis Gambis' ambitious drama, which won the Alfred P Sloan prize (given to a film with a scientific character or theme) ahead of its international premiere at this year's Sundance.

Butterflies, of course, are also a symbol of change, so have a fine history of being used as a metaphor. The fact that they're photogenic, especially when you see them in incredible, migratory clouds, certainly doesn't hurt Gambis' film either, although less would be more in a film that, while laudably ambitious, struggles to stop its ideas from becoming so unruly that they squabble with each other for attention.

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Mendel (Tenoch Huerta) – the biologist-referencing name a good example of the way Gambis can’t resist laying things on just a little bit too thick – works with monarchs as his scientist day job, using CRISPR gene editing. But after he goes back to his family’s village in Mexico for the funeral of his gran, he finds the trauma of the past impinging on the present and, particularly his relationship with his elder brother Simón (Noé Hernández). Snapshots of his childhood life and the tragedy that changed everything emerge in flashback and Gambis shows a good ear for childhood logic and language as well as a good eye for their energy. The idea of connection to the past and of pull of nature is further cemented by an old friend of Mendel’s Vicente (Lázaro Gambino Rodriguez), whose idea of a memorial to someone is considerably more primal – and a lot more cinematic – than a Catholic ceremony.

Gambis' ideas dance about one another – Mendel’s sense of longing for reconnection with the past but also his attempts to forge a new future with girlfriend Sarah (Alexia Rasmussen), who, in another of those lovely visual metaphors that nevertheless make the film feel overpacked, takes flight in her own way on a trapeze. There's also plenty of ecological concerns fluttering at the fringes of the film - not just concerning the monarchs but mining in Mexico and its impact not just on the animals but humans as well.

The smaller story of conflict between Simón and Mendel struggles to fully hang together under the weight of its more ambitious themes, but whether Gambis and his cinematographer Alejandro Mejía are capturing the intricate minutiae of a butterfly wing under the microscope, the boisterousness of children in a school play or the firelit rituals of Vicente, the imagery of Son Of Monarchs is never less than beguiling. Huerta also finds a winning magnetism in Mendel, serious and enigmatic in his search for something he may not even be able to call by name until he finds it.

Reviewed on: 01 Feb 2021
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After his grandmother’s death, a Mexican biologist living in New York returns to his hometown, nestled in the majestic monarch butterfly forests of Michoacán. The journey forces him to confront past traumas and reflect on his hybrid identity, sparking a personal and spiritual metamorphosis.

Festivals:

Sundance 2021

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