The 2021 Sundance Film Festival returns with the new drama “Son of Monarchs.” Thanks to the pandemic, Sundance has gone digital this year. Fortunately, that means more and more people can access these awesome flicks. This new feature is in the NEXT category, a subgenre meant to “showcase innovative films that are able to transcend the confines of an independent budget.” “Son of Monarchs,” or, “Hijo de Monarcas,” still feels like a film of great emotion and strength despite the smaller stakes, and should break out as a favorite from this year’s Sundance crop.
A duo of Mexican brothers, Mendel and Simón, grow up in the small Mexican town of Michoacán surrounded by monarch butterflies. They lose their parents at an early age, and are raised instead by their grandparents. When Mendel grows up and moves away to pursue a successful biology career, he leaves his brother behind to take care of the family. The death of a family member brings Mendel back home many years later, forcing a confrontation not just between brothers, but also with his own life choices.
The film is centered around, as the title implies, the metaphor of a monarch butterfly. Often renowned as one of the more beautiful butterflies in nature, it’s also notable for its frequent migrations across borders. This is reflected in Mendel’s migration away from home, leaving the nest, if you will. Butterflies are additionally famed for their astounding transformations from caterpillar to flying mature creature, and such a change is mirrored in the movie’s protagonist.
Mendel makes his migration away from his simple, warm, nature connected hometown, eventually making his way to a cold, sterile lab as a genetic biologist in one of the most populous cities in the world, New York. This is reflected in the color grading of these environments, the lab and city dominated by purples and blues while the butterfly forest is largely orange.
That contrast informs what is fundamentally different between these two places, and what choices Mendel made in life as he followed a path much different than his brother. The performances by Tenoch Huerta Mejia and Noe Hernandez are stupendous, there’s real tension in each of their confrontations.
The story is presented in a scattered fashion, going back and forth between the past and present much like a book would. But writer/director Alexis Gambis is in full artistic control, and paints a confident portrait of a family in crisis.The editing may be a tad complex, but it’s deliberately challenging to the viewer as the past and present eventually must collide for Mendel.
A unique visual and cultural identity makes “Son of Monarchs” a sure hit from Sundance 2021. Few movies deal with as many complex themes as it does, like growing up, death, dealing with change, confronting your past, family, and even destiny. It may not be accessible for everyone, especially considering the abrupt ending. But this is a film that touches your emotional core and is sure to stick with you long after you’ve seen it.