Friday, January 29, 2021

Sundance with Abe: Son of Monarchs

I’m thrilled to be covering the Sundance Film Festival for the eighth time. This year, I’m not in Park City, Utah, but watching films virtually and reviewing them as soon as I can.

Son of Monarchs
Directed by Alexis Gambis

The animal kingdom has its own hierarchies that offer plenty of insight, both literal and metaphorical, for the way in which people treat each other. Evolution hasn’t necessarily make humans smarter, and in fact may lead to their giving in more to base impulses that can at times make it impossible to distinguish their behavior from that of other animals. Studying insects offers a remarkable parallel to the class systems that exist in society and insist on keeping certain populations separate from others deemed more elite even if those differences may be arbitrary and ultimately irrelevant to their strength and ability to survive.

Mendel (Tenoch Huerta) works as a biologist in New York City, researching the monarch butterflies he remembers as a child growing up in Michoacán, Mexico. As he learns more and begins a romantic relationship with Sarah (Alexia Rasmussen), he is constantly reminded of his home. Unresolved questions about the death of his parents in a flood lead him to return to Michoacán and explore the fractured connection he has with his brother Simon (Noé Hernández), who is resentful that he chose to turn his back on his family and begin a new life elsewhere.

Mendel is a very mild-mannered and deferential protagonist, one who often merely observes what is going on around him rather than offering his opinion even in situations when it might be valuable. He comes alive through the passion he finds for his research and the way in which he reacts to the range of reactions he receives from his family members when he goes home to visit. There’s a deep sense that he believes that his study of the monarch butterfly can enable him a greater understanding both of the events that were formative in his life and the way in which people interact in general with each other.

Huerta, a familiar face from “Narcos: Mexico” and other projects, delivers an understated performance that gives Mendel a quiet wisdom, one that he attempts to use for good even if his brother in particular doesn’t see his departure for another place as excusable for any reason. There is a resonance to the seemingly unimportant moments, like Mendel watching Sarah as she practices the trapeze, that gives this film an added weight. There is something haunting in the metaphor of the monarch butterfly and its migration patterns, and this film smartly and subtly embeds that in an engaging and contemplative narrative.


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