“Monster” represents a minor coup for Netflix, not as much due to the movie’s merits as who’s in it. More than three years after its festival run in 2018, the film arrives with a timely theme and a cast whose stock has soared in the intervening time — including Kelvin Harrison Jr., Jharrel Jerome and John David Washington — making this one for the time capsule if nothing else.
Adapted from the 1999 book by Walter Dean Myers, the film marks the feature debut of music video director Anthony Mandler, from a script by a trio of writers, among them Radha Blank, who made her directing debut last year with another Netflix acquisition, “The Forty-Year-Old Version.”
Betraying the project’s indie-film roots, the movie’s structure basically resembles an extra-long episode of a courtroom TV drama, fleshed out by unfolding via flashbacks from the perspective of the accused — in this case, Harrison’s Steve Harmon, a 17-year-old Black honor student charged with aiding a robbery that resulted in the death of a Harlem bodega owner.
The narrative relies on Steve’s narration, getting inside his head while in jail, at a moment that threatens to derail his life and all the hopes and dreams that his stunned parents (Jeffrey Wright and Jennifer Hudson) have invested in him. To that point, the HBO miniseries “The Night Of” comes to mind.
The question of what really happened, however, is more complicated than just the cops nabbing the wrong kid, since Steve did know the other suspect, James (Rakim Mayers, aka A$AP Rocky), an older street character who offers Steve the kind of inspiration that might serve his goal of becoming a filmmaker.
The problem, in the way the movie is constructed, stems from a lack of clarity about the evidence, making the police’s interest in Steve seem particularly arbitrary. Nor is that situation helped by launching so quickly into the trial, which makes the film feel a little too “Law & Order”-ish for its own good.
Although the book is two decades old, “Monster” possesses a ripped-from-the-headlines quality in its look at how African American teens and young men are labeled (hence the title) and dehumanized by the justice system. Steve’s attorney (Jennifer Ehle) tells the prosecutor that her client is “not who you think he is,” but warns Steve that the jury will see him as guilty because “You’re young, you’re Black and you’re on trial.”
Ultimately, though, the movie feels most notable for the cast assembled, from Harrison — who subsequently starred in “Waves” and “Luce,” and is again very good here — to smallish roles for Jerome (an Emmy winner for “When They See Us”) as a witness and Washington (“Tenet” and “BlacKkKlansman”) as James’ partner in crime.
As noted, Netflix’s acquisition of “Monster” — which is being added to its Black Lives Matter collection — likely represents a relatively modest bet with a significant upside, given the names that will pop up if anyone searches for them. It’s just that the movie adds up to less than the sum of its parts.