In the opening of director Ben Lear’s heartbreaking and illuminating documentary They Call Us Monsters, screenwriter Gabriel Cowan sits at a table with four boys in a juvenile detention facility. For the next several weeks, Cowan will visit the boys and write a short screenplay with them that he’ll then direct. To start, Cowan teaches the boys how to play the “Yes, and…” game to collectively write a story, but as hard as he tries to end the narrative on a positive note, Jarad, 16, just won’t let it happen. “That’s not how it actually ends,” Jarad says. The brutal reality these boys face in a juvenile justice system that wishes to treat them as adults is encapsulated right here in this opening scene, where hope and joy turn quickly to inevitable pain.
Each boy infuses the characters of that screenplay with his own personal stories. Juan, 15, speaks shyly of being afraid of love and being in love with a girl named Abigail — a name then given to the protagonist’s friend. But as open as these boys are with emotions, they’re also master deflectors, often telling the stories of their own lives as though they were tales they’d overheard somewhere — Jarad says that a friend's father tried to stab himself to death, but Lear’s interviews with the boy’s stepfather reveal it was Jarad who witnessed this, not a friend. Juan recounts the painful story of his friend stabbing another boy to join a gang, but that was really Juan himself.
What’s fascinating is how absolutely normal, hilarious and hyper-intelligent these kids are. In this structured environment, they treat one another like brothers, sharing food and offering encouragement. They respect their superiors, whom Lear often catches trying to hide fatherly smiles from them. At one point, Juan calls the real Abigail and finally tells her how he feels and that he wishes her a good life; the guard listening in on the phone giddily cheers him on, like a dad. Juxtaposed against archival footage of politicians calling kids like these unrepentant monsters, such scenes speak volumes. Lear doesn’t make the boys saints — there are interviews with their victims — but he does paint a complex portrait of underserved children seemingly destined to end up in prison for life for no better reason than that they had no support.
Lear, the son of TV pioneer Norman Lear, uses the production of the short film as the timeline. The result is a multilayered meta-narrative in which clips from Los, the short film made from the boys' script, are edited in to illustrate these personal stories. One of the most bittersweet moments comes after Antonio, 14, is granted release unexpectedly. So hopeful at first, he’s almost immediately thrust into homelessness and turns to drugs. When Antonio shows up on set to watch the filming of Los, he’s visibly high and unhealthily skinny. Lear’s camera watches Antonio watching the movie version of himself get reprimanded for using drugs. Antonio shifts uncomfortably in his seat; in his real life, at just 14, there’s no such person there to keep him from falling. Yes, this film is important for its insistence that we see these boys as capable of rehabilitation in the right environment. But it’s the movie’s daring structure and humanity that make it worthy of the Lear name.