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Sundance 2021 Review: Son of Monarchs – “A truly scientifically accurate fiction”

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Every year at the Sundance Film Festival, the Alfred P. Sloan Prize is awarded to a film that either focuses on science or technology as a theme or depicts a scientist, engineer or a mathematician as a main character.  Previous winners include Chewetel Ejiofor’s The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (2019) and Michael Almereyda’s Tesla (2020).  The award for 2021 has gone to Son of Monarchs (Hijo de Monarcas), the newest feature from writer-director Alexis Gambis (The Fly Room).  

Mendel (Tenoch Huerta) is a Mexican biologist working in New York City, using advanced CRISPR technology to edit the genes controlling wing colour in butterflies.  When he receives a phone call from his uncle that his grandmother is unwell, he returns home, to a town near the forests of Michoacán.  These forests are also home to the wintering grounds of the monarch butterfly, where a seemingly infinite number of the insects hang from the trees and fly through the air.  It’s a magical place of Mendel’s childhood, now made less so by the deforestation and mining occurring there.  

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While in Mexico for his grandmother’s funeral, Mendel reconnects with his family, including his brother Simón who makes it abundantly clear that he harbours harsh feelings towards Mendel.  Now forced to confront traumas from his past, Mendel’s return to New York is complicated and full of emotion causing him to examine his hybrid identity in these very different worlds.  Like the butterflies he studies, Mendel undergoes his very own metamorphosis.  

Alexis Gambis is somewhat of a hybrid himself.  Part filmmaker and part biologist, he is an Assistant Professor at New York University (NYU), something that certainly came in handy when staging scenes occurring within their labs – some NYU scientists are even featured in the film itself.  This authenticity is clearly important to the director, with close up shots of dissection and microscopic visions of butterfly wings featuring heavily within the film.  The production even worked with a sound recordist who was also a molecular biologist in order to accurately capture the sounds of the laboratory such as an incubator or centrifuge.  The result from a scientific perspective feels like an inside look inside this field of evolutionary biology.  

But Son of Monarchs is not just scientifically clinical in its approach.  It’s also culturally immersive in its scenes shot in Mexico, stressing the duality of Mendel’s inner sense of self.  This topic of immigration (mirrored by the butterfly’s open migration between Canada, the U.S., and Mexico) runs straight through the film.  Gambis never allows his script to get overly political, but it’s obvious by mention of a certain now-former president where his ideals lay.  The scientist he is, Gambis provides evidence for his views, making clear how the construction of the ill-conceived border wall affects every living being in its vicinity.  The film also deals briefly with the issues of scientific ethics and climate change, all of these topics intertwined within Mendel’s work as they are in our current societal atmosphere.

The film moves back and forth through time and location examining Mendel’s childhood, his memories and the influence of this on his relationships.  Often these flashback sequences are incredibly short, which can lead to them being disorienting and prevent you from fully examining the character’s full connection to his hometown and family.  While the film doesn’t hit every emotional mark, becoming slightly muddled in the second act, the scenes between a young Mendel and his grandmother are intimate and tender, some of the more moving moments of the feature.  Lead actor Tenoch Huerta is often mesmerizing as Mendel, able to at once draw you in to his traumatic, painful past and yet push you away to keep you at an arms length.  The supporting cast, which includes Alexia Rasmussen, Lázaro Gabino Rodríguez, Noé Hernández, Paulina Gaitán and William Mapother aren’t given a lot of time to shine but this was always meant to be Huerta’s film.  

Every year, the monarch butterflies arrive in Mexico coinciding with Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).  It is said that the butterflies bring the souls of deceased relatives back to their families to visit.  It’s a beautiful thought, making the insects’ wondrous arrival to their winter home after a lengthy migration even more miraculous.  It’s also comforting. As Mendel retreats into the depths of his studies to a childhood comfort of the monarchs throughout his inner struggle, Son of Monarchs becomes a canvas for Gambis to tap into his personal immigration experience and his own self described “cross-cultural migration.” He has created what feels like a truly scientifically accurate fiction here and those with some science background might find the more technical components all that more immersive and impressive.  With its central themes of identity, grief, spirituality and acceptance, Son of Monarchs is also timely and relatable, if not a new reason to appreciate the monarch butterfly itself.

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