Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Monster, the new drama from Netflix, originally made its debut at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. The searing courtroom thriller based on the novel by Walter Dean Myers follows Steve (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a 17-year old who gets caught up in a drugstore robbery gone bad. Now, he’s viewed as nothing but a “monster” in the eyes of the opposition at his criminal trial. With his case, it seems there’s no such thing as innocent until proven guilty. Now, Steve must work with his faithful public defender (Jennifer Ehle) to prove that just because he was “acquaintances with nearly everyone involved” doesn’t mean he aided in murder.

There’s a sad poetry in the language of Steve’s narrations. Two men died in the robbery, and the weight of this hangs heavy over Steve’s psyche. His love for filmmaking adds a pointy cinematic touch—Steve is an aspiring filmmaker who is trying to find his voice. What is “good company” and who truly keeps it? To become a member of the Riders, you have to cut someone’s face. The other accused party is an aggressive guy from Steve’s neighborhood, King (ASAP Rocky). When King’s cousin Bobo (Tenet’s John David Washington) comes to town, mounting pressures to sell drugs and become involved in criminal activity loom heavy. Bobo even takes the stand at the trial, blatantly lying about the level of Steve’s involvement—or is he? The film casts a shadow of doubt over Steve’s innocence, and finding out in the late half is shocking and heavy.

Monster raises a lot of interesting questions, but the messages are a bit heavy-handed. The intense cross-examinations and court crud are nothing we haven’t seen before, and often feel predictable. Still, the performances are bold enough to recommend. Kelvin Harrison Jr. is terrific as Steve, with that narration twisting us deeper into his characterization. You root for him even without the knowledge of whether he’s telling the truth. Will the jury find him guilty or innocent? Only they can decide… Another indie film, 2019’s Foster Boy, executes the courtroom drama angle a bit more flawlessly. The ending is strong enough in a full circle kind of way, and builds Monster into a solid offering from Netflix.

Monster pleads the fifth on Netflix starting Friday, May 7th.

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