“Boy, man, human, monster: what do you see when you look at me?” The final lines of Walter Dean Myers’s 1999 novel “Monster” — and of the new Netflix movie made from it — echo through the story before you even hear them. The 17-year-old hero, Steven (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), is on trial for accessory to murder, accused of acting as a lookout in a bodega robbery in which the owner was shot to death. It’s Harlem; he’s a Black teenage male in a city and a country quick to judgment; the lead prosecutor labels him a “monster.” Steven’s also a gifted student at Manhattan’s Stuyvesant High School with a powerful urge to become a filmmaker and parents (played by Jeffrey Wright and Jennifer Hudson) who are middle-class professionals. He swears he’s innocent. What do you see when you look at him?
Myers, who died in 2014 after a long career and over 100 published works, was one of the more nuanced young adult writers, and his books flatter a growing reader with their complexities. The movie version of “Monster,” adapted by Janece Shaffer and Colen C. Wiley and directed by Anthony Mandler, does a fair job of hanging on to those complexities without adding any new ones: It’s solid, well-acted, thought-provoking fare, if rarely rising to the level of inspired. Oddly, the film nullifies the most original aspect of the book, which is written in the form of a screenplay, Steven coping with the trauma of jail and his trial by imagining it’s all just a movie. Well, now it is, and Mandler, making his feature debut after a long career as a photographer and music video director, keeps reminding us with flashy camera moves that don’t add much to the experience. (Or is this supposed to be the film Steven is projecting in his head?)
Harrison is stoic-sensitive in the lead; the role is reminiscent of the actor’s 2019 breakthrough, “Luce,” which also kept the audience guessing as to a young man’s actions and motivations. That character had multiple layers to him, though, whereas Steven has just two. “Monster” gets most of its energy from the cast milling about the hero. Jennifer Ehle is starchy, smart, and sympathetic as the boy’s lawyer, keeping him apprised of her strategy while holding out just enough hope. As the parents, Wright and Hudson are mournful and shaken; a scene where the mother reads from the Bible in a jailhouse meeting room moves from awkward to moving in the space of five seconds. Tim Blake Nelson brings welcome shadings to his role as Steven’s film club teacher, staunchly supportive even as he acknowledges he knows nothing about his prize student’s life out of school.
The one sour note, surprisingly, comes from John David Washington (“Tenet,” “BlacKkKlansman”) as Bobo, the ringleader of the robbery and, as far as the movie and the actor are concerned, the real monster of “Monster.” Washington lays on the drawling, dead-eyed villainy; it’s a mannered performance that sticks out among the naturalism of the other actors.
Is Steven guilty or innocent? “Monster” triangulates among the trial, his experiences in jail, and flashbacks leading up to the crime itself, and it’s to the credit of everyone involved that, after all is revealed, we’re still uncertain. Myers wanted us to feel for the kid but also to ponder the spectrum between action and inaction and where responsibility — and thus guilt — might fall on it. In the end, the movie gets that, too.
Directed by Anthony Mandler. Written by Janece Shaffer and Colen C. Wiley, based on the novel by Walter Dean Myers. Starring Kelvin Harrison Jr., Jennifer Ehle, Jeffrey Wright, Jennifer Hudson, Tim Blake Nelson, John David Washington. Available on Netflix. 98 minutes. R (language throughout, some violence and bloody images)