A group of eight Latin American teenage militia members are sent to a mountain top by their rebel commanders in the Organization, a political organization waging war against the established government. The Organization leaves them with assault rifles, a hostage to protect in Doctora (Julianne Nicholson) and a milk cow.
Monos is the story of eight teenagers waging a war with no clear purpose against a faceless power on behalf of a faceless power while losing themselves in each other. It’s a nasty blend of Lord of the Flies and Aguirre, the Wrath of God. But truthfully, it is its own thing — a movie about teenagers coming into themselves in the most lush, yet desolate, environment imaginable. The fog of war abounds as the situation starts crumbling. Monos gives no quarter and asks for none. It’s a steel-toed boot to the head, a soaking wet surreal story about growing up with nothing to grasp onto. Its heart pumps with bloody mud.
Their names are Bigfoot (Moisés Arias), Rambo, Wolf, Lady, Swede, Smuf, Boom Boom, Dog … their names gifted by each other, for each other. Codenames that become names that inform their identities. Once alone on the mountaintop, they create rituals. They fall in love. They explore their sexualities. At first, the cow defines their mission more than their hostage, but that changes in short order. The guns they’re left with give them a raw power that pales in comparison to the influence of hormones, groupthink and gossip. Bodies don’t pile up per se, but they fall all the same. Writer-director Alejandro Landes stages his teenage dream against such a chaotic backdrop not to recontextualize familiar plot beats in teen coming-of-age stories but to heighten the emotions that undergird them.
Landes captures the mountain and the jungle with cinematography by Jasper Wolf that makes you wonder if these kids aren’t trapped in the most beautiful places in the world. In an odd way, the isolation made me think of Honeyland, a documentary that depicts an isolated woman named Hatidze, the last in her family of bee-keepers confronting a family of nomads without respect for the world or her place in it. Like these fictional teenagers in Monos, Hatidze lives in a gorgeous landscape seemingly untouched by human endeavors, and it’s the setting for her solitary story. Monos is geographically isolated (until the mortars fall and the bullets fly), but in this case the story is about the warring groups who are, it turns out, just as lonely together as they would be as monk-like recluses. The two make for a strange and fascinating double feature about the human soul.
As beautiful as the landscapes are, Landes never makes them comfortable, and during multiple thrilling moments we’re reminded that the Earth was not made for us. One escape sequence in particular ends in buzzing bug-horror that boggles the mind. Enter Monos knowing that it isn’t a comfortable or comforting film, physically or emotionally. That the lessons learned about growing up aren’t the ones that usually sneak their way into genre takes on what it means to assimilate (or find your place on the outside). Maybe another title would be, like so many other war movies and war novels, the children’s crusade. But maybe all wars are ultimately fought by children; maybe the rationales we concoct to blow everything away aren’t much more rational than one boy angry that the other boy got to kiss the girl.
Teenage dream? Teenage nightmare. Teenage night terror.