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For its ancestral (now border-crossing) voyage between Mexico and the United States, the monarch butterfly, with its saturated orange wings, has become a prominent symbol for pro-immigration activists. The Danaus plexippus’ freedom of flight to a climate that’s best suited for their survival intrinsically makes them nature’s patron saints of migrants.
A departure from the usual accounts of those seeking a better future in a foreign land at any cost, “Son of Monarchs” — from writer-director Alexis Gambis, a rare filmmaker with a Ph.D in molecular biology — takes this poetic adaptability from the animal kingdom and transposes it into a visually evocative drama of familial conflict, binational belonging, and finding existential answers in a more primal connection with the universe.
Instilled with curiosity for discovery at a young age in his native Angangueo (a town known for welcoming the butterflies year after year), adult Mendel (Tenoch Huerta, “The Forever Purge”) became an accomplished biologist working in New York City. Researching the genetic code that gives the monarchs their distinct hue and overall phenotype, he’s simultaneously pondering his own identity crisis. Extreme close-ups of his tools ripping apart sample specimens in his lab brings us right under the microscope. The amorphous, abstract imagery captivates even if we are unversed on the purpose of this process and the eventual endgame.
At once hankering to return and dreading a revisit to his past, Mendel visits his hometown in the Mexican state of Michoacán for his grandmother’s funeral. Flashbacks to his childhood exhibit her role in his formation and the close bond he once had with his brother Simon. Bitter adult Simon (Noé Hernández, “Narcos: Mexico”) now reproaches Mendel’s absence amid the economic issues he and his family have faced, while his best friend Vicente (Gabino Rodríguez, “Sin Nombre”) showers the scientist in his animalistic fascination with the spiritual forces of the earth.
For as long as Gambis concentrates on these foundational relationships and how they pull at Mendel’s own understanding of his fractured life, the film soars with grounded pathos. But upon sending the narrative back up north, several convoluted narrative threads — including Mendel’s relationship with new American girlfriend Sarah (Alexia Rasmussen, “I Blame Society”) — weigh down the more dramatically substantial aspects of Mendel’s self-actualizing.
Sarah’s work as a paralegal dealing with cases of children separated from their parents at the border, a subject that only surfaces once, and her casual passion for practicing the trapeze (a far too obvious metaphor for flying), are overly contrived traits in their convenient topicality. Similarly, the director hints at how some of the technologically advanced procedures for DNA sequencing implemented in Mendel’s testing could lead to dangerous ethical dilemmas — while separately raising environmental concerns about a mine in Angangueo — yet these story streams remained untapped in Gambis’ flood of ideas.
Despite suffering from the creator’s impulse to cram themes in this overflowing vessel, “Son of Monarchs” rises above the fold for its wholehearted performances and the colloquially naturalistic quality of the dialogue that sounds spontaneous to the chemistry between the characters and not artificially calibrated. This aspect is one that’s not lost in the transition from one country to the other, as Mendel’s banter with both his Mexican-born pal and his fellow researcher stateside exudes that same lived-in familiarity.
Already one of Mexico’s most prominent actors, and an outspoken voice against the racism that permeates his country’s society, Huerta plays humbly erudite in his field, at ease in the rural environment and the state-of-the-art facilities. There’s great restlessness in Mendel that Huerta taps into and reflects in his eyes full of longing. A tearful confrontation, related to the sibling dispute, lands with stunning emotional potency, that of resentment fermented over many years. The actor, in a bilingual part, feeds off the energy of Hernández and Rodríguez, staples in modern Mexican cinema, capable of standing out even in a handful of scenes.
The undefined mysticism that coats Mendel’s inner untangling, including magical-realist underwater shots that project his unresolved notions of a tragic event in the family, is procured through Cristóbal Maryán’s transfixing score and cinematographer Alejandro Mejía’s luminous attention to the motifs, in the biological sense with the vivid insects as well as the rituals that make Mendel feel more at ease. Slightly more subtly, Gambis also uses the contrast of the urban landscape in cold weather in New York and the sunny vastness of the Mexican forestry to further the link the protagonist and the butterflies.
In this take on immigration, the Trump presidency is referred without uttering the name of the despicable talk-show host turned train-wreck politician; instead, it’s evoked in warranted, disparaging comments from several characters. The movie’s stance on the subject is clear, but the fact that Mendel also represents the model, highly educated and highly desirable version of an ideal immigrant, as opposed to those who arrived undocumented out of necessity, makes one wish Gambis had engaged more with the experiences of those less fortunate, perhaps discussing if anyone from Mendel’s community had migrated given the lack of job prospects or if his financially strapped brother ever considered it.
(Conceptually akin, last year’s “I’m No Longer Here,” a film by Fernando Frías about a young man from a marginalized community in Monterrey, Mexico, who migrates to NYC and eventually returns home realizing he is not who he was, delivers a more concrete and concise examination of this type of introspective trip.)
Still, “Son of Monarchs,” even with its scatterbrained screenplay, is a singular rendition of a kind of Mexican or Latin American character rarely, if ever, depicted on screen. As it traverses the sacred and the factual, the film intently portrays the liminal space anyone who’s ever left home knows well. It’s the threshold between the person you were, who you’ve become, and how the two halves are at odds mutating into a unique color, a new prism-like worldview.
“Son of Monarchs” premieres on HBO Max on Nov. 2.