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‘Monster’: Good kid goes on trial in provocative Netflix crime film

The empathetic Kelvin Harrison Jr., surrounded by talented co-stars, plays the teen with the odds stacked against him.

Steve (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a student with bright potential, is implicated in the murder of a store owner in “Monster.”
Netflix

For 18 years, everything has been going Steve’s way. He’s a smart and warmhearted young man with wonderful parents, terrific friends, fantastic teachers and a future so bright he really does have to wear shades.

And then, in the span of maybe five minutes, it all falls apart. There’s a man lying dead on the floor of his own store, and Steve is accused of being part of the chain of events that led to this tragedy. Now it’s up to the courts and a jury to decide his fate.

The still-timely and provocative crime procedural “Monster” has lingered in movie limbo since premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018 but is now finally seeing the light of day thanks to — you guessed it — Netflix. Based on the popular and acclaimed 1999 book by Walter Dean Myers and adapted with style and a keen sense of pacing by music video and commercial director Anthony Mandler, “Monster” is a cautionary tale about a good kid who gets caught up with the wrong people at the wrong time and sees that bright future fading into the abyss — because even though he maintains he’s innocent, he’s a Black teenager accused of being an accessory to a deadly crime in the New York City of the 21st century, and the wheels of justice are not calibrated to grind in his favor.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. turns in an empathetic and nuanced performance as Steve Harmon, who lives in a comfortable townhouse in Harlem with his loving and supportive parents (Jennifer Hudson and Jeffrey Wright, both terrific), attends a top-tier high school and has ambitions of becoming a filmmaker. (Hence the camera he carries practically every waking moment.) Steve does his best to keep to himself as he rides his bicycle through the neighborhood, avoiding contact as much as he can with the local gang-bangers and drug dealers lurking on the corners. But late one night, the Harmons’ idyllic existence is shattered when the police show up at their door and arrest Steve in connection with a robbery at a local bodega that resulted in the murder of the store’s owner.

Director Mandler and cinematographer David Devlin nimbly switch filters to reflect various stops along the timeline. At times Steve’s neighborhood looks glorious and sun-dappled and we feel his life is filled with promise; but when we’re in the courtroom or with Steve in jail, the lighting is harsh and bleak and unforgiving. “Monster” features a number of stellar supporting performances, including Jennifer Ehle as Steve’s attorney, who is sympathetic to his case but tells him the odds are stacked against him (“You are young, black and on trial”); Tim Blake Nelson as a teacher who believes Steve is innocent and has tremendous potential; the rapper Nas as the obligatory longtime inmate who becomes a mentor to Steve in jail. and Rakim Mayers a.k.a. A$AP Rocky and John David Washington as the local bad guys who try to recruit Steve as a lookout for the robbery. (We eventually find out exactly what role Steve played — or didn’t play — in the crime, and I’ll leave it at that.) This is an A-list cast that consistently elevates the material, even when we’re traveling down some very familiar roads.