Among the issues that are currently having a moment are two seemingly incompatible ones: cracking down hard on violent crime, and various types of prison reform, including how to best deal with juvenile offenders who commit serious “adult” crimes, such as murder.
Both issues get an examination in Ben Lear’s new documentary, They Call Us Monsters. The film isn’t a comprehensive look at these thorny issues; rather, Lear introduces viewers to three California teenagers and presents their stories, shedding light on how the existing legal system can impact young lives.
The teens are being held in a jail within a jail, a high-security facility inside Sylmar Juvenile Hall, north of Los Angeles. We meet them, along with Gabriel Cowan, a filmmaker who has offered to teach a screenwriting class at the lock-up.
On paper, the kids sound intimidating, and apt to be mired in desperation: Jarad, arrested at age 16, is facing 200 years for four attempted murders in a drive-by; Juan, also arrested at 16, is looking at a 90-to-life sentence for first-degree murder; and Antonio, arrested at 14, is facing 90-to-life for two attempted murders.
But the three are puppyish, wisecracking and eager to work on a script. Astutely, they gravitate toward “write what you know,” and use Juan’s account of a crush he once had on a girl to craft a coming-of-age tale about a 12-year-old boy from a tough neighborhood who starts sliding into trouble.
All are open to talking about their admittedly short lives. They have supportive families — Lear interviews them as well — but each has had a troubled upbringing, surrounded by street violence, drugs and fractured home lives. Despite facing life in prison, they speak hopefully of the future; one wants to be a Navy Seal. They even occasionally speak emotional truths.
There is less clarity on their reputed crimes — partly, one presumes, because each was still awaiting trial during the filming period — though they admit involvement. And the crimes are serious, very serious: Lear profiles one victim, and her story is heartbreaking. Running concurrent with the film production is proposed legislation in California to decrease juvenile sentences, in effect acknowledging that perhaps children and teenagers should not be treated as harshly as adults. Throughout the film, we see a law being debated that would institute parole hearings after 15 or 25 years into a life sentence.
There are no easy answers, and many competing truths: Teens do commit terrible crimes and deserve punishment; poor families have few resources to mount legal defenses; kids don’t fully understand the legal system; some youthful offenders can be rehabilitated and released, while some cannot; and so on. These three lives presented offer unique circumstances, but Monsters is quietly provocative, illuminating some of those caught up in an imperfect system of imprisoning juveniles.