The first thing we see is a group of young teenagers playing some form of soccer while blindfolded. They’re in the mountains, a crumbling brutalist structure in the background. In this moment, they’re just kids, having fun, celebrating. Soon we will learn that they are a militia — the “Monos” of the title, a part of some mysterious unnamed organization.
They have code names like Bigfoot, Wolf, Lady, Boom Boom, and their primary mission is to keep watch over an American woman named Doctora, their prisoner, as well as a milk cow named Shakira. Director Alejandro Landres’ extraordinary “Monos” tells a nightmarish vision of armed conflict in an unnamed Latin American country, told through the lens of a group of child soldiers who slowly disintegrate. It’s essentially “Lord of the Flies” filtered through a surreal and hallucinatory lens and absolutely unshakeable.
While largely an ensemble piece, the film focuses in on a few specific characters: the beginning shows the sanctioned relationship between Wolf (Julian Giraldo) and Lady (Karen Quintero) and introduces us to Bigfoot (former “Hannah Montana” star Moises Arias), Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura), who recently turned 15 and the disconcertingly young Smurf (Deiby Rueda).
Other than occasional visits and training from The Messenger (Wilson Salazar), the only adult on the compound is Doctora (Julianne Nicholson), who projects a motherly aura but is almost always in a cell. In another movie, Doctora would probably be the hero. Here, she’s largely offscreen for the most part (we don’t even learn her name until much later), and her history is limited by what the characters know.
The group will later move from the mountains to the jungle, where things begin to get worse as Bigfoot slowly takes more power, and the inescapable fate of violence draws ever closer. The cast as a whole — largely unknowns — makes each character deeply feel and highlight the fact that these are all very young children who shouldn’t be here. Special notes must be given to Arias and Nicholson, who are in some of the most intense scenes of the film and nail them.
Perhaps the greatest strength of the film is the constant tension between the group and who the “protagonist” of the film is. Nominally, it would be the Monos, but we’re never told who or why they’re fighting. One naturally wants to root for Doctora, but it’s complicated by some of the sheer horrifying acts she does to survive.
Landres never turns the story into a tract, and he doesn’t need to. By simply highlighting the age of the children and the desperation of the characters, he gets at the fundamental wrongness of the situation far better than any social action film could. He has a great handle on tone throughout, and his direction gives the proceedings a druggy tone and a muted color palette filled with smoke allowing the events transpiring to have maximum impact.
Powering the whole thing is an unsettling (as always), brutal score from Mica Levi, who may be best known for her work in “Under the Skin.” Her work doesn’t quite tip the film into horror, but it puts the audience on edge, enhancing the dreamlike tone of the whole experience.
“Monos” won’t be an easy film to forget. Its greatest strength is the understated power of the images of violence and war, resisting moralizing in favor of throwing you headfirst into the experience. A grim view of adolescence that’s thought-provoking and suspenseful in equal nature, it announces a new talent in Alejandro Landres and marks a career height for Moises Arias. It’s a fever-dream unlike anything you’ve seen before.