The child guerrilla soldiers of Monos play a game on their undisclosed South American mountaintop, as they wait for their next orders. Blindfolded, the group of kids with names like “Rambo” (Sofia Buenaventura), “Bigfoot” (Moises Arias) and “Boom Boom” (Sneider Castro) play a game of soccer that relies on aural senses. They have to hear their teammates and the clanging nets as they kick their ball around. Without these auditory additions, these kids of The Organization would be mindlessly kicking around in the darkness.
At times, Monos can feel like writer-director Alejandro Landes and co-writer Alexis Dos Santos are doing just that, kicking their idea around in the dark, as they wait to hear the clanging. Their take on Lord of the Flies is ambitious and unusual, with gorgeous nighttime cinematography by Jasper Wolf, and a haunting Mica Levi score that creeps up on you when you least expect it. But most of the times, Monos can feel like Landes and Dos Santos throwing out the skeleton of Lord of the Flies, hoping that the vagueness in their telling will have some larger allegorical context for the audience.
A group known as The Organization has placed these kids at the top of a mountain, where they train and keep an eye on their American prisoner, known as Doctora (Julianne Nicholson). When The Organization gives these heavily-armed kids a cow named Shakira, which they will have to return at the end of The Organization’s war. But after only a few days, Shakira is accidentally shot by one of the kids, and as they rip apart and eat the fallen cow, the group starts to splinter, destroying allegiances and making this group of child warriors even more dangerous as they fall apart.
Monos leaves most of the details vague. Who The Organization is and what they’re fighting for is completely irrelevant to Landes and Dos Santos, who instead focus on watching these kids try to keep some composure as their world falls apart. This lack of specificity feels less like a way to divert focus to the kids, and more of a lazy choice that lets Landes and Dos Santos avoid answering larger questions about their story. Even the relationships between the kids are hard to nail down, and as they bonds start to disintegrate, it leaves major developments feel like a shrug of irrelevance.
The only character that seems to realize the gravity of this situation is Nicholson as Doctora, who is giving an incredibly demanding physical performance. Nicholson has a dead look in her eyes at all times, as if she knows any moment could be her last in the hands of these unpredictable kids. Watching Doctora come to the realization in the moment that she may be able to use a certain situation to her advantage and possibly escape, that complete shock in the moment in Nicholson’s performance is completely natural and brings a sense of reality to this story.
But far too much of Monos is left for the audience to put together in their own way, making this no-frills story come off more like the writer and director not wanting to put the time into the larger story going on around these characters. There’s a big difference between wanting to leave stories open to audience interpretation, and simply leaving a story vague in the hopes that the audience might find some larger point in the open-ended void that you’ve crafted.