Review: Courtroom drama 'Monster' never finds its momentum

Kelvin Harrison, Jr. leads Netflix movie that also stars Jennifer Hudson, John David Washington and A$AP Rocky

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

In "Monster," the talented Kelvin Harrison Jr. ("Luce," "Waves") plays a young man on trial for murder. Did he do it? No. But was he a part of it? Maybe. 

The matter of that "maybe" and what it means hangs over the film, but it's not enough to hang the film on. "Monster" has an unclear message, a foggy narrative and a dramatic structure that continually works against its better impulses. 

Kelvin Harrison Jr. in "Monster."

Harrison is Steve Harmon, a 17-year-old honor student in Harlem. He's a bright kid and a budding filmmaker, and his habit of making movies in his neighborhood leads him to a local hustler, William King (Rakim "A$AP Rocky" Mayers), who exerts his power over the meek Steve. When William plans to knock over a local bodega with his partner in crime Bobo (John David Washington), they ask Steve to act as look out. When the robbery leads to the shooting death of the store owner, the question of Steve's involvement leads him to stand trial for his part in the crime.

Director Anthony Mandler, a music video vet who has helmed videos for Rihanna, Drake, Eminem and others, primarily stages "Monster" as a courtroom drama, inside a courtroom that looks like an art gallery, no less. He uses flashbacks to tell the story of Steve both in jail awaiting trial and living life before the incident, and in film classes where he learns about the importance of narrative and point of view, two areas where "Monster" could use a refresher.    

In addition, "Monster" is full of distracting casting choices: Jennifer Hudson, who is just 13 years older than Harrison, plays his mother; rapper Nas is cast in a too-small role as a fellow inmate of Steve's. Add in Harrison's droll voiceover and "Monster" has a lot working against it. The film attempts to discuss race and identity politics and the way young Black men are perceived by the system, but its point is constantly obscured by the path it takes to get there. 

'Monster'

GRADE: C-

Rated R: for language throughout, some violence and bloody images

Running time: 99 minutes

On Netflix

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama