Culture

Film

Belonging to no one: ‘Monos’

By Luke Goodsell
Like its teenage guerilla protagonists, Alejandro Landes’s dreamy, violent feature film is marked by a purposeful ambiguity

Image courtesy of Neon

“I want to dance on television,” says a cherubic teenager to her forty-something companion midway through Monos. It sounds like a perfectly generic wish for an adolescent girl, except that this one is holding the adult woman hostage at the end of an AK-47 assault rifle, and they’re both locked in a bunker somewhere on a remote mountain range. Seconds later, an explosion erupts outside and the teen is on top of her captive, smothering her with kisses that twist from the childlike to the erotic, before giving way to the electrifying onset of madness. As coming-of-age fables go, this is no quirky summer to remember.

The fresh thrill of chaos – of teenage abandon bearing down on a broken system – courses through this dreamy, violent third feature from Colombian-Ecuadorian writer-director Alejandro Landes, a filmmaker lurking at the intersection of Sundance-approved world cinema and a more untethered, experiential formalism. Among misty mountaintops that might be in South America if they weren’t filmed to resemble a time of legend, a mysterious squad of teenage guerillas is guarding the aforementioned hostage, an American engineer they call Doctora (Julianne Nicholson). Their politically ambiguous superiors, billed only as the Organisation, have mostly left the teens to their own devices, save for the periodic appearance of the Messenger (Wilson Salazar), a diminutive man-child who drops by to approve inter-group relationships, deliver a cow by the name of Shakira, and yip orders (“Show me your war face!”) at kids half his age but twice his height.

Collectively known as Monos (from the Greek word for “alone”), these machine-gun-toting small soldiers wear the motley, every-era fashion of military camouflage, nylon sportswear and sleeveless denim, and go by code names (Smurf, Rambo, Bigfoot, Boom-Boom) that read like a parody of pop-culture detritus. Their downtime, which largely involves playing games, making out, and discharging their weapons into the ether while they await commands, has perversely shifted from a pantomime of adulthood to a kind of mini utopia: communal, self-sustaining, open to gender fluidity. It’s an idyllic new world where the androgynous, baby-faced Rambo (non-binary actor Sofia Buenaventura) moves between lovers Lady (Karen Quintero) and Wolf (Julián Giraldo), while the rough-hewn and jacked-up Bigfoot (Moisés Arias) gets about in pigtail dreadlocks, leggings and a skirt. Even Doctora has become one of the gang, more hair-braiding teenage peer than frayed elder. Out of place and out of time, they’ve become a makeshift family with nothing to lose but whatever system put them here to begin with.

Landes frames the group less as teens than primal beings remaking the world in their own image. The film’s early sequences of celebration and communion have a kind of ancient, magic ritualism, while cinematographer Jasper Wolf’s widescreen vistas, painterly and panoramic, are complicated by Under the Skin composer Mica Levi’s arsenal of alien bird calls and subterranean Morse code – a soundscape that captures the film’s heady mix of hormones, adrenaline and oxygen deprivation.

The film’s often luscious imagery is rife with enough muddy face paint and flare-lit jungle flourishes to have critics reaching for their surrealist war standbys (“Apocalypse Now on shrooms” went one unfortunate Guardian headline), and Landes does lean, perhaps to a fault, on his admitted influences, from novels Lord of the Flies and Heart of Darkness to Elem Klimov’s paralysing, dissociative World War II horror film Come and See (1985). Yet Monos is most rich when it echoes the energy and troubled soul of Héctor Babenco’s street-kid classic Pixote (1981), the slippery sexual identity of Bertrand Mandico’s The Wild Boys (2017), and even the mischief of Harmony Korine’s Gummo (1997), films that illustrate what happens when kids are forced to grow up – and grow strange – in the shadow of adult neglect.

Just as Levi’s score switches between tender fairytale motifs and the surround-sound cacophony of wheezing helicopter rotors, Monos embraces its essential paradoxes. As an allegory for the lingering Columbian civil war (and the nation’s uneasy attempts at brokering accord), the film obscures any direct political comment and blurs the division between left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary. As an all-purpose horror-of-war piece, it works hard to complicate traditional sentiments on the “innocence” of childhood and the compromises of growing up. (In the film’s press notes, Landes insists that Monos is concerned with “rejecting binary concepts of the world”.)

These tensions boil over during Monos’s messy, transformative second half when, after an enemy skirmish in the mountains, the squad are compelled to move their captive upriver, deep into the jungle. Desperate to escape, Doctora reverts to deceptive, self-preserving ploys and adult cunning, and the Messenger, the ineffectual father figure, is revealed to be powerless in the face of those he’s corrupted – both are nominal parental figures that the teenage guerillas must discard. Meanwhile, the squad’s struggle for independence becomes one for internal power, and a longing for normality is shown to be a regressive compromise; one character’s brief sojourn with a nuclear family who gather, dead-eyed, around a TV to watch a documentary about a Gummy Bears (“hard enough to keep their shape but soft enough to chew”)  proves to be a world to which seemingly no one would want to return.

“What should we do with this unidentified person?” says a military soldier to his colleague when Rambo is eventually “rescued” and taken aboard a passing chopper, a moment that Landes can’t resist pairing – to the film’s detriment – with a hackneyed, implicating to-camera glance at the audience. But the question lingers all the same. When the alternatives for kids on the fringes are police custody, the social-welfare system, or simply living in a world where a teen’s aspirational peak amounts to dancing on television, maybe it’s better to belong to nothing, and to no one.

Luke Goodsell

Luke Goodsell is a critic and editor who has contributed to the ABC, SBS and the Melbourne International Film Festival.

@timebombtown

Image courtesy of Neon

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