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‘Son of Monarchs’ Review (Sundance): Unhurried immigrant drama attempts to balance the metaphysical with the strictly scientific

Filmmaker/biologist Alexis Gambis's efforts to advance scientific representation in cinema continues with an intriguing, intimate tale.
Credit: Courtesy/Sundance Institute

Of all the vibrant images that populate Alexis Gambis’s “Son of Monarchs” – absorbing pans over forests filled with the flying insects; haunting dream sequences of a man tangled in underwater vines; a window splintering into veins as if manufactured elements have suddenly turned organic – the most captivating is also the most purposeful: A microscopic shot of scissors carefully slicing open a dark cocoon before peeling back its papery shell, exposing the spindly legs of a butterfly within. The man holding the scissors is Mendel (Tenoch Huerta), and in this story about a New York City-based biologist who must reconcile present breakthroughs with the lingering fallout of past actions, you can bet that name is as intentional as what we’re watching Mendel do with his newly transformed specimen.

Having recently returned to his Mexico home for the first time in years in the wake of his grandmother’s death – some relatives welcoming him with open arms, others mysteriously glowering in his direction –Mendel now goes about his research, a budding romance and recurring nightmares of an ambiguous past trauma while enveloped in a mysterious stasis. His actions become increasingly spontaneous, while his efforts to understand why remain out of his reach, and out of ours. Some kind of transformation feels inevitable, and when considering the kind of bugs Mendel’s work revolves around, well...the potential for metaphor in “Son of Monarchs” is obvious in a film when little else is.

But the context of that metaphor is as vital as anything else we experience watching Gambis’s intimate, spiritual and perhaps overly withholding drama. Here is a movie as invested in its scientific arcs as the emotional ones of its reserved protagonist, and it’s a contradictory work—rigid and improvisational, didactic and artistic, fully aware of itself and stylistically unmoored. And it’s entirely embracing of those contradictions. While some movies invite us to decipher what’s on the screen through the lens of the filmmaker, “Son of Monarchs” demands it.

Gambis has a fascinating and informative connection to the character of Mendel, in that he himself is a scientist as well as a storyteller—a duality embraced by his founding of the Imagine Science Films organization and a motivation to “break the stereotypes of how we think about scientists in film,” as he put it in a recent TED Talk. That the characters of Gambis’s stories are researchers with emotional depth beyond their lab coats isn’t so much what emboldens his sensibilities, however, as the fact that their work informs their emotional evolutions. Between such specific questions as how animals pass on traits and why butterflies’ wings are as colorful as they are, Gambis would probably be the first to say his subject matter is better suited for the realm of documentary—where explanation of answers are expected and “allowed” to be duly explanatory.

But explanation isn’t quite good enough for the scientist-director; he’s looking to expand our expectations, attempting to inform and entertain in equal, more idiosyncratic measures while keeping clear distance from the traditional documentary space. It may be more accurate, then, to describe Gambis’s goal as breaking the stereotypes not of scientists in film, but rather of what we may deem cinematic and uncinematic about the particulars of discovery itself. His storytelling approach, rough-hewn as it may be, gives entirely new meaning to science-fiction. He’s even given it an appropriate name: “Science New Wave.”

It’s easy to dismiss Gambis’s dual passions as contradictory when we observe the shaky balance between the science journal-ready touches of “Son of Monarchs” and its more metaphysical flourishes. Then again, the ongoing arc of scientific understanding has helped us to better know our own stories. Maybe he’s onto something. Whatever the case, it’s the friction between fiction and fact that Gambis seems even more keen on imbuing his movies with, and though he has yet to fully synchronize the make-believe of his stories with the real-life headlines inspiring them as mesmerizingly as a butterfly’s fluttering wings, “Son of Monarchs” hits closer to the bull’s eye than did his previous effort, “The Fly Room.”

It helps, for one thing, to have Huerta, embodying a simmering agony that imbues even the scrappiest elements of Gambis’s screenplay with the forlorn beauty of someone excavating the ruins of their splintered relationships. Choosing to have the Mexico City-born Huerta play a scientist verging on major breakthrough is in itself a breath of fresh representational air when “The Tax Collector” reminded us just a few months back about the tropes Hollywood is all too eager to slot Mexican actors into. But he also submits what is, quite simply, a quietly magnetic performance here—curiosity and confusion swirl in equal measure in his eyes, and a tense physicality suggests he’s internalized the regret stemming from a childhood incident that the film oh so slowly reveals details of via recurring voiceover and visual echoes. The claws of past tragedy reach out to ensnare him at the worst moments; a sense of triumph eludes Mendel at work when he should be rejoicing, and he takes to ignoring texts from his girlfriend, Sarah (Alexia Rasmussen), while stopping by the tattoo shop for more than an unassuming piece of ink. It’s a sign of Gambis’s still-budding screenwriting talents that we may experience moments of dissonance while piecing together Huerta’s state of mind.

Credit: Courtesy/Sundance Institute

At the same time, the film bounces back to scenes of Mendel’s childhood alongside his grandmother, and the excursions are too organically woven throughout to feel off-putting. Even as some narrative tensions are forced in the present-day timeline, “Son of Monarchs” effectively pulls us into the flow of a movie where epiphanies of science and of the soul are given equal weight. We don’t entirely know what’s haunting Mendel, but the mystery tugs us into his memories and research, the latter borne out in attractive frame-filling mosaics of a butterfly’s wings that have the advantage of hooking our attention even outside narrative contexts. “Son of Monarchs” may be a little too cool, a little too nonchalant, in conveying the magnitude of Mendel’s discoveries – revolving around the real-life research of “optix” – to the scientifically lay viewer, but there’s still ample room to respect Gambis’s daring synthesis of the things that govern nature we can see and nature we hold within us.

Between the kaleidoscopes of butterflies fluttering about their Mexico sanctuary, Sarah’s hobby as a trapeze artist and the suspicion that “Son of Monarchs” will go in whatever way it pleases in any given moment, there’s a sensation of boundlessness surrounding Mendel even as he’s anchored tightly to the past. An understated emotional climax just barely justifies the heaviness that’s been weighing on him, and what “Son of Monarchs” ultimately resembles is an immigrant story in which the aesthetic contours fit a little too neat, a little too tight, for the foundational pathos to totally spring forth. But that subtlety, too, is of apiece with Gambis’s perspective. There’s grace in modesty, and we may take that for granted. But the catharsis is undeniable at the unleashing of a primal scream, or at the re-emergence from a cocoon we didn’t realize we were encased in until there was nothing else to see.

Starring: Tenoch Huerta, William Mapother, Alexia Rasmussen, Juan Ugarte

Directed by Alexis Gambis

2021

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