In its depiction of child soldiers growing up in a hurry, the Colombian drama “Monos” is as grim, stark and surprisingly moving as the high mountaintop where the action happens.
On a mountain in an unidentified South American country, these eight teens — five boys, three girls — perform exercises under the watchful eye of their commander, called The Messenger (Wilson Salazar), who visits occasionally to drill the individuality out of them. All that matters, they’re told, is loyalty to “The Organization,” which is engaged in a running battle with troops down the mountain.
Atop the mountain, this unit is given two assignments. The most recent one is to protect and care for Shakira, a milk cow recently conscripted by The Organization. The other is to keep their hostage, Sara Watson (Julianne Nicholson), an American engineer they call “Doctora,” alive and available to record ransom videos.
When The Messenger isn’t around, the kids have trouble maintaining their discipline. Romances, petty jealousies, drunkenness and boredom all take their toll, threatening the children’s sanity, and the lives of their hostage and the cow.
Director Alejandro Landes, working with writing partner Alexis Dos Santos, creates a spare, intense drama of foot soldiers struggling with the chains of conscription in a war they don’t understand. It’s a story that echoes with strains of “Lord of the Flies” — or perhaps the jungle oppression of “Apocalypse Now,” without Marlon Brando’s Col. Kurtz in charge.
Landes captures this unforgiving world with cinematographer Jasper Wolf’s beautiful images of the mountainscapes, so high up that the clouds lay below them. The score, by Mica Levi (“Jackie,” “Under the Skin”), pierces the high-altitude situation with intensity.
The wonder of “Monos” is the talented cast, almost all of them unknowns making their movie debut. (The exception is Moisés Arias, who a decade ago played Rico, comic foil to Miley Cyrus on “Hannah Montana,” and here plays Bigfoot, a pretender to leadership in the unit.) The young actors reflect both the brutality that they have endured and the vulnerability that still hasn’t been drilled out of them, and give “Monos” its depth.
Opened September 13 in select cities; opens Friday, October 4, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City). Rated R for violence, language, some sexual content and drug use. Running time: 103 minutes; mostly in Spanish, with subtitles.