Sundance Review: Son of Monarchs
The migration patterns of the monarch butterfly span from Canada all the way to Mexico. There’s something oddly human about the travel habits of this particular type of insect, ever relatable to anyone who’s traveled a great distance from home. Even thousands of miles away, it’s easy to feel an almost instinctual connection to one’s hometown.
Son of Monarchs anchors its narrative in this terrain. Mendel (Tenoch Huerta) is a biologist studying monarch butterflies in New York City. He returns to Mexico for his grandmother’s funeral, reconnecting with his brother, Vincente (Lazaro Gabino Rodriguez), who stayed in their hometown. The brothers’ childhood was marred by tragedy, as their parents drowned in a flood. To Mendel, butterflies represent both a form of escapism in his grief-stricken youth, as well as a source of inspiration for him to spread his wings and travel across the continent to pursue his passions.
Director & screenwriter Alexis Gambis presents a dreamy narrative that frequently jumps between past and present. The cinematography is absolutely stunning, presenting the Mexican landscape in a way that fully evokes its sense of awe and wonder. Watching Mendel as a child, it’s easy to see his passions captured in real time.
In many ways, the landscape functions as a kind of secondary protagonist, with Mandel operating with a fair bit of distance from the audience. Huerta is a skilled actor, capable of giving Mendel exceptional depth through subtle expressions. Gambis guides the narrative with a soft hand, rarely showing his cards earlier than needed. Much of the movie takes place in present-day New York City, featuring Mendel interacting with his coworkers at the lab, scenes that almost naturally pale in comparison to those filmed in Mexico.
Son of Monarchs explores the nature of passion from a three-dimensional lens, a rewarding journey from a confident director. Our life obsessions can be powerful tools for self-discovery. They can also serve as crutches, shielding us from grief that we’d rather not confront. Passion is messy, often hard to put into words.
The film is occasionally a bit clunky in its delivery, particularly with regard to some of the narration choices. A lot of analogies are made between humans and butterflies. While this emphasis plays into the film’s broader objectives, the methods through which they’re deployed do get a bit repetitive over time.
Most impressive about Son of Monarchs is the depth to the narrative. It’s the kind of film that keeps you thinking long after the credits have rolled. While Mendel’s journey, one can easily use him as a conduit to explore how the concept relates to our own ways of using passions to deal with grief. There is much beauty to be found in this film.