Review: ‘Son of Monarchs,’ starring Tenoch Huerta

November 1, 2021

by Carla Hay

Tenoch Huerta in “Son of Monarchs” (Photo by Alejandro Mejia/WarnerMedia 150)

“Son of Monarchs”

Directed by Alexis Gambis

Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2019 in the Mexican city of Angangueo and in New York City (with some flashbacks to Angangueo in the late 1980s), the dramatic film “Son of Monarchs” features predominantly Latino cast of characters (with some white people and a few Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A Mexican biologist, who is living in New York City and has a fascination with monarch butterflies, goes back to his hometown for his grandmother’s funeral and confronts trauma and secrets from his past.

Culture Audience: “Son of Monarchs” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in contemplative character studies about immigrants who come to America and are conflicted about how much of their lives in their native country they should leave behind.

Kaarlo Isaacs in “Son of Monarchs” (Photo by Alejandro Mejia/WarnerMedia 150)

The well-acted drama “Son of Monarchs” (written and directed by Alexis Gambis) draws interesting parallels between butterfly transformations and what can happen when immigrants start a new life in another country. The movie is also about family, dealing with trauma, and coming to terms with having the experience of living in more than one country in a lifetime. Should you give preference and allegiance to one nation of over another in order to maintain a certain identity? Or is it possible to give equal importance to each national identity?

These are issues and dilemmas facing a biologist named Mendel (played by Tenoch Huerta, also known as Tenoch Huerta Mejía), a Mexican immigrant in his late 30s who has been living in New York City for an untold number of years. Mendel is originally from a working-class municipality in Mexico called Angangueo, which has had a long history of mining as its top industry. The movie, which takes place in 2019, and flashes back about 30 years earlier, never shows Mendel’s immigrant journey or explains why he decided to leave his entire family behind to live in the United States.

What is known—because it’s constantly shown and it’s the basis of this movie’s title—is that Mendel has been obsessed with monarch butterflies, ever since he was a child. The movie’s opening scene shows Mendel at about 5 or 6 years old (played by Kaarlo Isaacs) and his brother Simón (played by Ángel Adrián Flores) at about 7 or 8 years old, while they are playing in the woods in Angangueo. The two brothers look at a cluster of butterflies hanging from a plant formation on a tree. Mendel says the cluster looks like a bear, while Simón says the cluster looks like body of a dead person.

It’s the first indication of how different these two brothers are: Mendel is more of an optimist, while Simón is more of a pessimist. Later at night, when the two bothers are in their shared bedroom, Mendel asks Simón many questions about what happens when people die. Simón says that people’s spirits go up to heaven in a ladder that can be found in the clouds.

Simón just wants to go to sleep, so with each question that Mendel asks, Simón gets a little more impatient and annoyed. The last question that Mendel asks is if their parents are in heaven. Simón answers yes with a sad expression on his face. It’s how viewers find out that these two brothers are orphans. They are living with their Uncle Gabino and have a beloved grandmother (Gabino’s mother) named Rosa Maria Martinez De Guerrero.

Not much information is given about Mendel and Simón’s parents, such as how long ago they died or their cause of death. There are no flashbacks of the parents either. However, there was a huge mining accident in Angangueo that killed several people when the brothers were around the ages that are shown in the movie’s flashbacks. This accident is why Mendel has some repressed memories about his childhood and why he keeps having a nightmare that he’s drowning.

The movie fast-forwards to 2019. Mendel is now a bachelor with a low-key personality and routine lifestyle. He lives alone in New York City, he’s never been married, and he has no children. Mendel is well-respected in his job, where his supervisor Bob (played by William Mapother) seems to admire Mendel’s analytical nature and his professionalism. Mendel is still fascinated with insects, especially monarch butterflies. According to the Mexican folklore he learned as a child, these butterflies represent visiting ancestors and are considered miraculous.

Life seems to be going fairly smoothly for Mendel. But then, he gets a phone call from his Uncle Gabino (played by Ignacio Guadalupe) telling him that Mendel’s grandmother Rosa (played by Angelina Peláez) has passed away. Mendel goes back to Angangueo for the funeral, where he sees people whom he hasn’t seen or spoken to in years. And one of them is his estranged brother Simón (played by Noé Hernández), who is now a parent of teenagers.

Why are Simón and Mendel estranged? It comes out later in an argument that Simón thinks that Mendel moved to the United States to become a hotshot scientist, with little regard for loved ones left behind in Mexico. While Mendel was living in the United States, Simón went through some hardships (including being unemployed for two years), and he felt that Mendel should have been more caring and supportive during these tough times. At the funeral wake held in the family home, Simón practically snarls at Mendel that this is Simón’s house, as if Mendel is trying to be some type of interloper.

Mendel is a non-confrontational type of person, so it might be easy for viewers to speculate about any number of reasons why he avoided keeping in touch with Simón. However, the movie doesn’t give straightforward answers, except to indicate that Simón and Mendel have very different memories about what happened on the night of the mining accident. It’s an unspoken trauma that has caused some emotional damage to the two brothers. More is revealed when Mendel and Simón finally talk about that night for the first time since their estrangement.

Other people whom Mendel sees during this hometown visit include two of his friends from childhood. Vicente (played by Gabino Rodríguez) and Brisa (played by Paulina Gaitan), who (unlike Simón) are very happy to see Mendel. (In flashbacks to their childhood, Pablo Salmerón plays Vicente, and Natalia Téllez plays Brisa. ) In conversations with Vicente, viewers find out that Mendel had a mischievous side to him as a child. Mendel and Vicente have a laugh over remembering how they played some pranks, including lighting something on fire where fortunately no one got hurt.

And in talking to Vicente, viewers also find out how Mendel feels about Donald Trump. Vicente asks Mendel, “What’s the deal with your [U.S.] president?” Mendel replies, “He’s not my president. Do I look orange to you?” Vicente laughs but then says in all seriousness, “Is it okay over there?” Mendel says, “I don’t know.”

There are hints that Mendel is lonely but he doesn’t really want to admit it to anyone. When he talks to Brisa, it becomes clear that they had some kind of romance as a teenagers, but it never really led to anything serious. Brisa is now happily married with kids. When she asks Mendel why he hasn’t gotten married, he dismissively makes a vague comment that marriage has never been a hugely important to him.

But that doesn’t mean that Mendel doesn’t have a love life. He has a love interest named Sarah (played by Alexia Rasmussen), a social worker who interacts with undocumented immigrants, many of whom have been separated at the border from family members. Sarah is learning trapeze skills, so there are scenes of her get trapeze lessons. There’s also a part of the movie showing how obsessed Mendel is with butterflies. It has to do with a large tattoo that he gets, what he uses later for tattoo ink, and how it all ties into Mendel being a proponent of CRISPR technology that can edit genes.

“Son of Monarchs” had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize, which is given to an outstanding feature film about science or technology. It’s not a fast-paced movie or a story with a lot of melodrama. “Son of Monarchs” takes on the personality of protagonist Mendel, by being sincere but often not revealing deep emotions right away.

It seems as if writer/director Gambis wanted to give viewers a sense that Mendel is someone who would prefer to be analytical rather than emotional in making life decisions. It’s why Mendel finds more comfort in studying insects in labs instead of having meaningful personal connections with people. However, Mendel cannot hide from his emotions, especially when his hometown visit brings back a flood of memories and feelings that he thought he had long since buried.

Huerta gives a compelling performance as someone who is caught between two cultures and having mixed emotions about which one he should identify with more. He clings to his fascination with butterflies because they represent the one constant he can count on in his life. “Son of Monarchs” has plenty of beautiful imagery of butterflies, which serve as this story’s metaphor for personal transformations and resilience. After seeing this movie, viewers might come away with a new appreciation for monarch butterflies and what they can teach people about thriving in a world that is sometimes hostile and dangerous.

WarnerMedia 150 released “Son of Monarchs” in select U.S. cimemas on October 15, 2021. The movie’s HBO Max premiere is on November 2, 2021.