They Call Us Monsters Review - Captivating as Lifers at 16 Tell Their Stories

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They Call Us Monsters, a documentary from BMP Films and New Artists Alliance, takes the camera inside California's maximum security juvenile facilities, inside the youth criminal justice system, the homes, lives and backgrounds of the young and violent criminal.

Directed by Ben Lear, son of iconic television creator Norman Lear, They Call Us Monsters, begins with a long shot of "The Compound," a maximum-security California prison for youth offenders, that sits within Sylmar Juvenile Hall. Like most facilities, buildings, shopping malls and mega stores in the Southern California area, "The Compound" is a mega facility, a juvenile detention facility for non-violent offenders on one side and a maximum, lock-down facility, for violent youth awaiting trial having committed adult crime.

Oddly the grassy soccer field is the separating line, and that in and of itself is a statement, as the high risk kids are facing on average 75 years in maximum security adult prisons. The grass, which they are not allowed to touch, play on or experience is the standard statement in the take down, "remember how the grass feels because you'll never touch it again.

These kids, predominately Hispanic and African American, are facing hard time. Our three subjects, collectively are facing 400 years in prisons.

When Gabe Cowan, They Call Us Monsters Executive Producer enters "The Compound" he is there to teach a screenwriting class to interested high risk offenders. Four teens sign up. It's his first teaching experience.

They begin with the director explaining the goal of the class is to write a ten page screenplay, produce it and make the film in ten weeks. He begins with a simple screenwriting exercise, "yes and" and rolls a yellow ball toward one of the four and they ad lib the story.

The boys, each prove they have the chops for improvisation and the class begins. As the film progresses the stories of each of the boys is introduced.

We meet our subjects, Darrell, who leaves before the class is finished he is sentenced to 15 years in maximum security before parole, Jarad, arrested at 16, facing 200 years for four attempted murders, Juan, arrested at 16, facing 90-to life for first degree murder, and Antonio, arrested on month after his 14th birthday, facing 90 to life for two attempted murders.

One wonders when watching what could these kids do in such a short time to have these binding sentences on their lives.

The youth criminal system is also introduced and in reality, is continuing to be defined as children as young as 11 have been tried as adults for heinous and unheard of crimes. California has been a leader in youthful offender reform, even for those deemed violent and unable to be rehabilitated.

Since 2012, the California State Legislature has passed three significant pieces of legislation aimed at reforming the system. The first (SB 9, 2012) eliminating the "life without parole" sentence for juvenile offenders (except for those with special circumstances); The second (SB 260, 2013) Provides parole board hearings at 15 or 25 years for juvenile offenders with defacto life sentences, and the third, (SB 261, 2015) raises the age of SB260 to 22 years old, affecting an additional 16,000 inmates.

The facts remain, as strongly as the advocates of reform, that children clearly have a knowledge of right and wrongs. These inner cities youth understand, and quite honestly, as do country bumpkins, that guns kill. Simply, the wrong or right flashcards exists: it is wrong to take the life of another person.

They Call Us Monsters doesn't sugarcoat the facts: These three, Juan, Jarad, and Antonio are violent criminals. Looking at this baby-faced Juan, and realizing he is guilty of a point-blank murder in MacArthur Park, Jarad a gang related drive-by that leaves a 17-year-old female in a wheelchair permanently, and Antonio, at 12 addicted to Meth, and with an addicts dogged pursuit did anything and everything, including two counts of attempted murder, to get the drug, is difficult to wrap ones mind around even if these troubled times of high crime, drugs, violent gangs and rash, unheard of violence over the trivial slight.

Confession tapes are shown where Jarad is coerced into writing an apology letter to the victims, and while he has been Mirandized, the strictest interpretation of the Miranda Law is "anything you say." The handwritten apology served as a confession which aided by the incompetent attorney, who did herself a disservice by failing to challenge even the most minor details cultivated grounds for a new trial. He was clearly unprepared to participate in his own defense and she was also. He was sentenced to 200 years.

MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, a neighborhood that takes on an entirely different persona after hours, had just been outfitted with hidden cameras to capture the "element" and for prosecution value when the a point blank murder was captured on videotape. Juan, age 12, was in a loyalty challenge for his brother's gang.  

Antonio, lived throughout most of the film in the spotlight of hope, his case was under appeal and there was a strong possibility he would walk. And he did. Initially he a strong sense of determination to be the voice for those still behind emery lines, locked up forever, but no drive. Soon hanging with the hood on the corner, the freedoms that sucked him before at 12 when he became addicted to meth, showed up and he couldn't deal. By the film's end Antonio was on the inside again, an adult prison serving 90 to life.

They Call Us Monsters goes beyond the maximum-security gates, into the lives of the offenders, the past, when they had hopes or a different future, visits with the parent who also spoke of the moments when they saw the split, when the child left the house and the bonds of friendship drew them into an adult existence way to soon.

One note of the documentary is that it began with a goal, for these kids awaiting trial, to participle in this screenwriting class, tell their story and have the film made. The reached their goal and quite possibly for the first time gave them an actual sense of accomplishment.

They Call Us Monsters is a poignant, captivating documentary. Not another "Bad Boys Behind Bars" or youth criminal who are hoping to have their sentences reduced for a few faked contrite moments on screen.

They Call Us Monsters opens everywhere January 20, 2017. See this film, it leaves you speechless.

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