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Alexis Gambis Son of Monarchs Review

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Son of Monarchs | Review

Son of Monarchs | Review

Butterflies Are Free: Gambis Mines Identity Through Metaphor/mosis in Sophomore Film

Alexis Gambis Son of Monarchs ReviewDirector Alexis Gambis returns to his favored motif of genetics in his latest film Son of Monarchs, dissecting how inherent biological mechanisms override the trauma potential in the nurture side of an age-old debate. If Calvin Bridges was the underlying inspiration of his 2014 debut, the period piece The Fly Room, then it’s Gregor Mendel whose spirit is personified by the main protagonist of his latest, exploring hybrid cultural identities through the metaphorical lens of the orange-winged royal butterfly of the title. It is a theme which Gambis has touched upon in short works as well, from his contribution to the portmanteau Mosaic (2017) through a quartet of 2018 shorts which explored themes expanded upon here.

A striking lead performance from Tenoch Huerta (slated to play a villain in The Black Panther sequel) and a stellar array of Latinx co-stars finds the French-Venezuelan director intertwining cultural and biological themes in interesting ways for an insular pondering of identity via intimate epiphanies and eventual metamorphosis.

Orphaned at a young age along with his older brother, Mendel (Tenoch Huerta) regards his childhood through a split prism of painful and joyful memories. His formative years also provided inspiration for his continued existence as a biologist thanks to growing up in Michoacán, where the monarch butterflies converge in hordes on their annual migration patterns. Now living in New York, he’s called back home to attend the funeral of his grandmother, a woman whose influence assisted in aspiring him to pursue his dreams. But other family members, like his brother Simon (Noe Hernandez) saw Mendel’s pursuits as an abandonment of family and culture. Back in New York after the funeral, a budding romance with Sarah (Alexia Rasmussen), introduced through a colleague, also jars a growing need to repair his relationships and embrace himself.

With a death in the family instigating the much-needed bridge between estranged brothers, we piece together a portrait of the rippling traumas which formed Mendel’s understated personality. Huerta, who bears a striking resemblance to the chiseled profile of Javier Bardem, navigates these subterranean reconciliations effectively through performance. A reunion of sorts with his Sin Nombre (2009) co-star Paulina Gaitan is short-lived, his presence at his grandmother’s funeral an event he can’t seem to leave fast enough, much like flashbacks to his childhood which are similarly presented as memories he’d rather push away.

Most of the running time focuses on what plays like an awakening for Mendel in New York. A chance romance with Alexia Rasmussen (Proxy, 2013), whose hobby as a trapeze artist channels a sort of old-Hollywood weirdness and glamor, is stymied in part to Mendel’s inability to reveal vulnerabilities he still needs to work on for himself. His journey plays out in metaphorical strides initially, from a touching moment shared with an affable boss (William Mapother) to concocting his own butterfly ink to use in a tattoo for himself. And like his scientific focus, exploring genetic codes explaining why butterflies are so colorful by tampering with certain elements to modify hues, his initial transformational desires start with the superficial exterior in changing the outside to match the inside. On the backburner, there’s discussion of how this research into these modifications of the genetic code can become a slippery deviation to eugenics.

Eventually, Son of Monarchs migrates back to the trajectory we know it’s been preprogrammed to do, and it’s where Gambis makes good use of Noe Hernandez, a gruff character actor usually pigeonholed into certain supporting roles but here displaying a hard-won vulnerability which feels authentic and touching despite the brevity allowing the brothers a chance to speak. Illuminating the endless sense of discovery through the intriguing and symbolic use of the monarch butterfly, Son of Monarchs is understated in its straddling of poetry and science, emotions, and control.

Reviewed on January 29th at the 2021 (Virtual) Sundance Film Festival – NEXT Program. 97 Mins.

★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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