ReelBob: 2016 Heartland Film Festival: ‘They Call Us Monsters’

By Bob Bloom

You have to give “They Call Us Monsters” credit for sincerity.

This documentary, which looks at California’s juvenile-justice system, feels fragmented.

It continually shifts and fails to remain focused — instead wanting to cover a myriad of issues relating to its subject.

The main part of the story focuses on three juveniles incarcerated for very serious crimes, including fatalities.

The three — Antonio, Juan and Jared — sign up to take a screenwriting class with Gabriel Cowan, the teacher, who also is one of the documentary’s producers.

A fourth student, Darrell, attends the first few classes, but shortly after is sentenced to 15 years in an adult prison.

The movie also shows deliberations among California lawmakers, as they debate Senate Bill 260, which holds juveniles responsible for their crimes but offers them second chances to demonstrate remorse and rehabilitation, thus allowing a parole process that will keep them out of adult prisons.

The documentary continually jumps between sequences of the three youths working with Cowan on a screenplay, showing their families and home lives, incorporating comments from police, lawyers, victims, judicial experts and lawmakers.

At times, the movie feels more like a civics lesson than a look at juvenile offenders and an attempt to give them a voice.

Director Ben Lear works hard to juggle these diverse threads — sometimes he succeeds; other times he falls short.

“They Call Us Monsters” is a depressing documentary. Seeing young lives wasted makes you feel empty.

And, yes, poverty, divided and dysfunctional families and gang-infested environments play a part in this. Others have overcome these obstacles; these three teens could not.

Discussing Senate Bill 260, one interviewee noted that those between “16 and 23 are physiologically insane,” and lawmakers and courts need to realize this.

Kids, even those who commit heinous crimes, are different from adults. And that needs to be recognized, as well.

The youths work with Cowan on the screenplay, showing vulnerabilities and insights, as they craft their story. They even become offended when Cowan adds and changes aspects of the plot.

They are not stupid or inarticulate; these teens simply lacked the means to overcome the obstacles in their communities.

The futures for the film’s subjects are not bright. All three remain in the prison system; two face deportation after their sentences are served, and a third is not eligible for parole until 2037.

“They Call Us Monsters” does not condone or make excuses for the trio.

What the film does, is point a laser at wasted lives and potential. If only the movie had spent more time zeroing in on the individuals and their stories and less on the rhetoric around them.

Bob Bloom is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. His reviews appear at ReelBob ( and Rottentomatoes ( He also reviews Blu-rays and DVDs. He can be reached by email at or on Twitter @ReelBobBloom.

2½ stars out of 4
Not rated, language, violence

“They Call Us Monsters” will show at 10:15 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 22, 5:15 p.m. Monday, Oct. 24 and 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 25, at Showplace Traders Point; 5:15 p.m. and 8:15 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 26, 12:45 and 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 28, 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 29 and 12:15 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 30 at AMC Castleton Square 14.

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    A 2016 Heartland Film Festival selection that looks at the juvenile justice system. Share your views of this documentary at ReelBob.