(director: Ben Lear; screenwriter: Gabriel Cowan; cinematographer: Nicholas Wiesnet; editor: Eli Despres;  cast: Juan Gamez, Antonio Hernandez, Jarad Nava, Gabe Cowan; Runtime: 82; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Gabriel Cowan, Sasha Alpert, Ben Lear; BMP Films; 2016)

“The film feels like a well-meaning but inadequate knee jerk response to a problem far bigger than the one offered here.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The 27-year-old Ben Lear, son of the legendary TV producer Norm Lear, questions in this liberal documentary whether juvenile offenders (
between 14-17) in California who commit violent crimes should continue to be tried as adults or deserve a second chance. The problem was the filmmaker’s choice of treating the violent juveniles with kid gloves over his superficial argument and his failure to consider what the monstrous acts did to the victims and their families. The film feels like a well-meaning but inadequate knee jerk response to a problem far bigger than the one offered here.

It follows in 2014 three
teenagers-14-year-old Antonio, 16-year-old Juan, and 17-year-old Jarad- behind the walls of The Compound writing in a prison workshop a movie with the disingenuous screenwriter Gabriel Cowan (doing the project as a credit for himself) as they await their trials for first-degree murder and attempted murder. They are lively, tattooed gangbanger street-wise kids, who show no remorse for their crimes. Antonio could care less. Juan, who joined a gang before his 13th birthday as a way to gain respect, and who has been charged with fatally shooting a man three times at point blank range and says, “I really was a monster. I really was.” Jarad left a teenage girl in a wheelchair after a drive-by shooting and isn’t too concerned about her.

Missing from this awkwardly made indulgent film
was the necessary context about the operative of rehabilitation as opposed to society’s right for punishment — like the need to keep violent offenders off the street for obvious reasons.

Since it was a no brainer that punishment for violent crimes was not a bargaining chip and even if there’s no argument about trying to reform convicts, it was never clear to me what point Lear was trying to make. If
Lear’s argument is that teenagers shouldn’t be locked up for life when you can reform them, he makes a lousy argument for that view when he shows these callous killers without any regrets for their crimes and then wants us to believe doing a screenplay and writing in characters will no longer make them monsters. The film pretends to be insightful, but is not.

They Call Us Monsters (2016)

REVIEWED ON 2/4/2018       GRADE: C