Who knew peeling open a chrysalis under a microscope could be so mesmerizing? Apparently, Alexis Gambis did. The filmmaker opens “Son of Monarchs” (“Hijo de Monarcas”) with that unique image — a pointy tweezer piercing through the layers of an inert butterfly cocoon. The effect is a compelling mixture of beautiful and disturbing aspects that Gambis revisits throughout the film, as well as collages of pixelated close-ups of opaque wings, and the circular cells speckling a slide. These geometric images blend fluidly with more pastoral scenes — a young boy covered in a flutter of orange and black spots, the rolling greenery of Michoacán, the cold blues of a flooded memory — to form a visual landscape shrouded in unnerving color.
As arresting as it is disorienting, the imagery in “Son of Monarchs” eclipses its unwieldy script, which crowds its compelling protagonist with too many sub-plots and incidental players. Pared down to its essentials, “Son of Monarchs” is a visually daring hybrid of science and art anchored by a riveting performance by Mexican actor Tenoch Huerta (“Narcos: Mexico”). Gambis tries to do too much in 97 minutes, overstuffing the plot with an American girlfriend and too much time in New York, betraying a mistrust in just how compelling the fundamentals could have been on their own.
Huerta lends his considerable talents to Mendel (named for the Czech scientist), a pensive and ambitious young man who immigrates from Mexico to New York to study biology. In childhood flashbacks, Mendel is sweet and curious, bothering his big brother Simon with life’s toughest questions, like wondering where their parents went after they died. Returning to his hometown for his Abuela’s funeral, we learn he and Simon (Noé Hernández) no longer speak, though the reason for their estrangement is unclear. The funeral scene is ripe with unspoken history and heartache; the charming characters in Mendel’s family could easily have filled the whole film.
But we’re back in chilly New York before we know it, where Mendel spends his days in the lab and his nights with a white trapeze artist named Sarah (Alexia Rasmussen). Such literal flights of fancy feel oddly out of step with the rest of the film, like Gambis tried to squeeze a rom-com into a coming-of-age drama. A thinly-sketched work colleague and proud boss distract even further, while a loving niece and unresolved filial drama is left in to wither on the vine in Michoacán. Mendel’s visits to present-day Mexico bookend the film, but the country appears mostly in recurring childhood flashbacks, which do less to further the plot than to break it up.
As nightmares of his parents’ death begin to wear on him, Mendel descends into a kind of butterfly-induced breakdown. His research will alter the monarchs’ genetic sequencing, a triumph his boss trumpets but which clearly fills him with unease. By the time he extracts orange butterfly ink so a tattoo artist can mark him with two sleeves of wings, the threads of his unraveling have frayed into a chaotic patchwork. Like the animalistic mourning ritual his friend performs over a fire, Mendel has become one with the monarchs. A repeating voiceover explains that the monarchs represent ancestors, migration, and connection to the land — a message that could have been better translated by a few more scenes with the family and land he seeks to embrace.
“Son of Monarchs” won Sundance’s Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize, which recognizes portrayals of science in film. In addition to an MFA in film from NYU, Gambis holds a PhD in molecular biology, and is Assistant Professor of Biology, Film & New Media at NYU Abu Dhabi. If anyone was equipped to make a science film, it’s Gambis. The research scenes of Mendel hunched over a telescope feel real and lived in, not like the jargonistic forensics labs of crime shows or action thrillers. In “Son of Monarchs,” Gambis has mapped the butterflies’ migratory paths and genetic patterns onto Mendel’s search for belonging. It’s an inspired blend of science and narrative, and an affecting allegory emerges from the unique imagery.
Perhaps he couldn’t resist the temptation at thinly veiled autobiography, giving too much airtime to Mendel’s life as a working biologist and single guy in New York. (“Scientists never get the girl in movies,” one can hear scientists saying.) It’s only disappointing because Huerta is so good — too good to drown under extraneous plot. It’s easy to map so much onto his arresting face, which coveys a deep well of feeling in every shot. He’s so deeply present, so eager to connect, and so easy to watch, that Mendel had whole worlds in him just waiting to be explored.
“Son of Monarchs” premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival in the NEXT section. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.