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Monos

Year: 2019
Production Co: Stela Cine
Director: Alejandro Landes
Writer: Alejandro Landes/Alexis Dos Santos
Cast: Julianne Nicholson

It looked from a distance like more of an issues movies than a story, but there was a lot more in it and by the end I found myself knowing all the kids and invested in what happened to them.

The Monos are a group of child soldiers who live on a mountaintop somewhere in Latin America in what seems like the narcoterrorism days of the 1980s but could be any time, none of them with real names apart from nicknames like Wolf, Dog, Bigfoot, Rambo, etc.

They have a handler, a local commando/mercenary who comes to set their training regime, issue edicts on who's allowed to pair up sexually and dress them down for their past performance to toughen them up. Their other main duty is to shelter and feed a young American doctor (Julianne Nicholson) their freedom fighter army has taken as a hostage.

The kids have nothing but a rudimentary campsite, occasional radio communication with their seniors, each other and automatic weapons for whatever skirmish their forces are fighting out in the jungles.

When their commander comes to visit and delivers a milking cow, he impresses upon them how lucky they are to have it on loan and to take care of it, but during the festivities they get up to that night – partying, screaming into the night and firing rounds into the air – the cow is hit and killed by friendly fire.

The group – seeming to range in age from about 12 to about 18 and thus truly children – are terrified about the punishment and retribution that will be coming when their commander finds out. In shame and fear, their leader Wolf puts a bullet in his brain, and the rest of the crew are left to try to explain the catastrophe as an accident and hope they don't all get shot over it.

Somehow their commander believes their story, appoints a new leader and tells them to be ready to ship themselves and their hostage out – territory has been gained in the struggle and they're relocating to the jungles down the mountain.

Once there, things start to fracture. The new leader, Bigfoot, is a little too hotheaded. And when the commander is taking him downriver to face the consequences when their hostage has outsmarted them and given them the slip, Bigfoot shoots the man dead while his back is turned, turning the boat around and returning to his comrades, setting about recapturing their quarry and twice as dangerous now you know what he's capable of.

Bigfoot becomes the letter of the law, tying one kid to a tree as punishment for his part in the escape, several others realising how unhinged he's grown and determined to break free themselves. It will all end in bloodshed for several members of the young, armed and ultimately scared gang and not just them.

If you want to consider the 'issues movie' side of the equation the allegories are all there. There's the tragedy of failed states and organised crime that puts machine guns in the hands of kids young enough to still be playing with dolls and action figures, for one thing. Another strong parallel I saw was in Lord of the Flies, about how we descend into savagery in the absence of guidance or law and order.

Or you could just appreciate it for the cast of young unknowns doing some very brave stuff for the camera and doing it very well, and what must have been some hellish locations to film in. It meanders a little bit in both the narrative structure and pace, but it's still quite an achievement.

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