The monarch butterfly is one of the most well known and studied butterflies on the planet, and it is also of tremendous cultural importance in Mexico, both for its beauty and for what it does for the tourism industry in Michoacán. But the butterfly has also become a symbol for immigrants because of the perils that both the butterfly and immigrants face in their journeys, a journey that still puzzles scientists. It’s at this intersection between beauty and mystery where Son of Monarchs places its equally beautiful, complex, and at times puzzling narrative.
The film follows Mendel (Tenoch Huerta), a Mexican biologist living in New York who returns to his hometown in Michoacán after many years following the death of his grandmother. Once there, he is confronted with past traumas and the duality of his identity, forcing him to reckon with what he took with him when he left home, and what he left behind — all while researching genetic modifications in monarch butterfly wings.
From there, Son of Monarchs cuts between Mendel’s childhood in Mexico, where the mining industry in his hometown is eating away the butterflies’ habitat, and his life in New York where he’s starting a relationship with paralegal Sarah (Alexia Rasmussen), who works with Human Rights Watch while sidelining as a trapeze artist. French-Venezuelan writer-director Alexis Gambis moves from one part of the story to the other with lightning-fast pace. We learn that Mendel, who used to idolize his older brother, has become estranged from a now resentful and judgemental brother. His childhood best friend spouts spiritual beliefs while Mendel’s boss, Bob (William Mapother) gives a presentation about the importance and uses for CRISPR. This constant moving between narrative threads is reflected in the cinematography, which beautifully goes from spectacular landscapes in Michoacán, to microscopic shots of the butterfly wings Mendel works with.
Like the butterfly that gives the film its name, Son of monarchs is complex and dense in its thematic explorations, which at times can feel daunting. The film explores immigration and the effect it has both on the immigrant and in the family they leave behind, exemplified in Mendel’s estranged relationship with his brother and his home town. The relationship between Mendel and the butterflies reflect that of the butterflies with the town and tourism, but also climate change and even the economic crisis hitting Mexico after mines begin to close down. These themes are subtly explored in passing conversation, and Alexis Gambis does a great job of tying them all together to Mendel’s experiences, which Tenoch Huerta marvelously conveys in quiet moments of reflection, where the memories and the self-doubt starts creeping into his thoughts. Huerta has been giving us potent performances the past few years, from Narcos: Mexico to Tigers are Not Afraid, and if this film is any indication, we’re in for a treat when he joins Marvel in Black Panther 2.
Alexis Gambis’ work serves as both a highly educational science lesson, and a powerful emotional narrative, and Son of Monarchs isn’t different. The film raises fascinating questions about the uses and criticisms of CRISPR and genetic manipulation, while also throwing in documentary-like and biopic elements into the film. His experience working in New York as a biologist mirrors that of Menzel, and you can feel a lot of empathy and a deep connection with the character that emanates from the screen during the climactic conversation with his brother.
Unfortunately, in trying to weave multiple narratives at such a fast pace, Son of Monarchs feels a bit too puzzling, which can get in the way of a strong emotional connection to the story. Sarah ends up being barely a character, and the tension between Mendel and his brother is left for a very short scene that ends abruptly.
A minimalist yet ambitious narrative, combined with Gambi’s ability to weave in science talk into the story, Son of Monarchs results in a film that feels as personal as it does grand. As countless butterflies fly around the Micoacán landscape, you can’t help but be enthralled by the puzzle that is this unpredictable and weird story of grief, self-discovery, and transformation.