Alejandro Landes’s Monos is sometimes a thrilling action film, bounding from cloud islands in the Colombian highlands down into dense jungle canyons. But more frequently it’s a nuanced and beautifully photographed psychodrama exploring the tensions holding together a squad of child soldiers deeply immersed in an unending civil war—so deeply they seem to know nothing of the conflict other than its basest imperatives and hierarchies. In other words, war is their youth and life. They call themselves monos, monkeys, taking codenames, or simply nicknames, for themselves, as if they were superheroes or mythological beings: Bigfoot, Wolf, Lady, Dog, Boom Boom, etc.

The film opens with the monos ensconced at a remote mountain base, a kind of brutalist treehouse idyll, where they enjoy a relatively free, heavily armed state of adolescence, taking pleasure in their natural environment and violent play, as well as in their developing, gender-fluid sexuality. The band’s only duties, for the moment, are to stay vigilant and to guard an American engineer, known to them as Doctora (Julianne Nicholson), taken hostage by the rebel Organization for whom the monos fight. In this high state of grace, Doctora, the only adult around, often seems more of a playmate for the monos than their a prisoner.

Soon, The Messenger arrives, the team’s handler and drill sergeant, a cruel-faced representative of distant authorities with obscure plans, bringing with him another assignment: maintaining a milk cow on loan to the Organization from peasant supporters of the revolution. This added responsibility, however, quickly begins to expose potential fractures within the group and the ease with which their unity, their “we”—temporarily fixed by The Messenger’s discipline, a goad to their pride—can turn to an indolent disorder and a Lord of the Flies-like atavism focused on “him,” “them,” and “you.” They are teenagers after all, and even play wrestling is practice, yes? A martial skill that must eventually be turned on something, or someone. One wonders, actually, how the adults who made killers of these kids—perhaps assuming their malleability and lack of conscience—could allow themselves to think them incapable of aiming their lethal potential at authority in general, at everything that wants to control and isn’t them.

Monos’ power derives from its preferencing of myth over reality. For all its intimacy with the characters’ faces and bodies, with their human qualities—strength, weakness, ingenuity, fear—its mode is not to sentimentalize the monos’ lost innocence, but to mythify their creation, their mode of living, and the legacy they make for themselves (that they’ve been made to make by the Organization and by a country in perpetual crisis), not just in the jungle but in any other world they choose to enter. There is a reality from which they’ve escaped, and it is no match for their capacity to play one game.

Landes, his actors, his cinematographer and editor lyricize these lives and the landscape with an exquisite sense of taste and timing, without trivializing at all the issues at stake for the real Colombia, and for its Central American neighbors—Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador—whose citizens are fleeing north from the same kind of violent actors, seeking sanctuary and hope. If we’re familiar with the contours of this story, the unbounded child mob’s descent into pitiless savagery, Monos provides us with a particularly irresistible version of it—sensual and surreal with no easy answers.

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