Movie Review: A Butterfly Biologist wrestles with trauma and despair, “Son of Monarchs”

“Son of Monarchs” is a contemplative character study of a molecular biologist who studies the Monarch butterflies that winter in and around his hometown of Angangueo, Michoacán. He studies them at a university in New York, and when he’s summoned home for the funeral of the abuela who raised him, he relives some of the trauma that made him leave and copes with unfinished business with the older brother who stayed.

The latest from the director of “The Fly Room” continues his insect-centric character studies with a movie that doesn’t openly lay out where it’s going or what it’s about, but gets everything it can out of its backdrop, the annual, instinctual migration of Monarchs from all over North American back to their ancestral home to the Rosario Sanctuary and points near it in Mexico.

When you name your little boy “Mendel,” after the famous mathematician/geneticist, you’re pretty much setting his course for life. In flashbacks, the adult Mendel (Tenoch Huerta) remembers roaming the butterfly-covered forests with older brother Simón, bombarding his sibling with questions about the butterflies who fly there, secure the next generation and die.

A lot of Mendel’s questions are about life and the afterlife. There’s a reason their grandmother is raising them. Something happened to their parents.

In present-day New York, Mendel experiments with Monarch wing colors and patterns, looking for the genes that determine this or that, looking for the perfect color to use in his tattoo tribute to the winged creatures who make his hometown a tourist attraction. He’s a star pupil of his mentor (William Mapother), but a lonely loner, wholly consumed by his work.

Back in Mexico for the funeral, he participates in rites for his grandmother, rituals from the Day of the Dead. He catches up with childhood chum (Gabino Rodríguez) who joined him in the costumed festival celebrating the butterflies when they were little.

We pick up on the bad blood between him and his brother (Noé Hernández), the auditory flashbacks that capture the sounds of a flood, desperation, the modern day schism caused by the mine where his brother works and it and the “gangs” who run it ruining the habitat for the most famous of all butterflies.

Back in New York, we witness a tiny break in his work obsession when Mendel takes up with a social worker (Alexia Rasmussen) whose hobby is mastering the flying trapeze. New York, where any and all “passions” are indulged.

“Sons of Monarchs” is the sort of understated indie drama that leaves you with a wish list as you watch the closing credits.

I wish this tale told in Spanish (mostly) had more directly tied the butterflies’ fate to Mendel’s, wish there’d been more overt connection to these butterflies, “spirits of the dead” in Mexico, to Mendel and wish he’d taken a more out-front role in securing their habitat and survival.

But that’s another movie. What’s here is more subtle and intimate, getting at the trauma obliquely, making the migrating butterfly connection only in the vaguest sense.

Huerta, seen most recently in “The Forever Purge” and “Narcos: Mexico,” gives a poker-faced performance with just a hint of soul sneaking through.

And his writer-director, filling in butterfly tourism (festivals, etc) around the edges, makes the “Son of Monarchs” metaphorical point clear enough — eventually. He’s too interested in the biology of it all — chrysalis dissections, color at the genetic level — to make his point more overt.

It’s not a great film of deep insights into the human condition. But Gambis has found an arresting backdrop for a quiet, human story of loss, regret, guilt and work distraction, a movie well worth checking out just for the butterflies.

Rating: R for language (profanity)

Cast: Tenoch Huerta, Noé Hernández, Alexia Rasmussen and William Mapother.

Credits: Scripted and directed by Alexis Gambis. An HBO Max release.

Running time: 1:37

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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