May 7, 2021 4:56 PM EDT

Any story about a wrongfully incarcerated minor should be fraught, and Anthony Mandler’s Monster gets that right. Seventeen-year-old Harlem teenager and aspiring filmmaker Steve Harmon (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) lands in jail for a role he allegedly played in a robbery-turned-murder. His upper-middle-class parents—played by Jeffrey Wright and Jennifer Hudson—are appalled and angry, but they also feel helpless. The public defender assigned to Steve’s case, Katherine O’Brien (Jennifer Ehle), believes in his innocence, but she fears the cards are stacked against him just because he’s Black: a jury is likely to assume he’s guilty unless proven innocent, instead of the other way around. And between sessions in court, Steve is stuck in prison, a place where he doesn’t belong and one he’s ill-equipped to handle. Adapted from a novel by Walter Dean Myers, Monster is the story of not just one kid but many kids. It’s harrowing in its believability alone.

If only it were a better movie. Monster is weighed down by a novelty it doesn’t need: Because Steve is a young filmmaker—he’s a student at prestigious Stuyvesant High School—Mandler approaches the material as if it were a film Steve himself were making (though he appears to drop the conceit about midway through). As the jury files in, we hear in voice-over what Steve is thinking: “Enter the jury—various ages, races, a random assortment of humans with eyes that move like animals. Empty.” The camera lingers on the jurors’ blandly hostile faces; this crew seems freshly graduated from Jury Acting School 101. With his multiple not-so-clever tricks, Mandler—who has made music videos for the likes of the Jonas Brothers, Rihanna and Taylor Swift—unintentionally saps this story of energy and power. Too much filmmaking is sometimes worse than bad filmmaking.

Yet Monster still shows sparks of life. The scenes with the fewest frills work the best, particularly those involving Wright and Hudson, many of which are flashbacks that show the family dynamic at work. Wright’s character is a graphic designer who delights in the fact that his son shares his enthusiasm for the golden ratio. In a late scene we see him shedding tears—except we don’t see the actual tears. Instead, we see him shielding his face from the world, the release of tension visible as if a spring has uncoiled in his body. In one sequence, Hudson’s character visits her son in prison, expressing a sense of failure—she never made him go to church, and now she has convinced herself that was bad parenting. Steve’s discomfort is palpable as she reads a Bible verse aloud. We see that this isn’t normal for either of them, that even if Steve’s mother is essentially a believer, she doesn’t view the Scripture as any sort of cure-all. It’s simply that she doesn’t know what else to do; Hudson wears those feelings of helplessness like a mourning veil.

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And Harrison—who has given fine performances in pictures like Julius Onah’s Luce and Trey Edward ShultsWaves—doesn’t just convey Steve’s youthful vulnerability. He also channels the threads of guilt Steve feels for his unintentional role in the crime for which he’s on trial, one that left a bodega owner dead. Monster is largely a story about how Black kids are so often failed by the system, but it also poses questions about the tricks memory can play on people, and about how easily human behavior can be misread because of ingrained racism. It also pinpoints the sad reality that every young Black man has to worry, always, about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Harrison shows us a young man poised between fear of a lengthy, unjust prison sentence and conscientiousness about how one small lapse in his judgment may have inadvertently led to a man’s death. His face tells a complicated story by itself—no fancy filmmaking curlicues required.

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