February 19, 2020

‘Monsters’ looks at young prisoners hoping to change the script of their lives

Filmmaker Ben Lear. Photo courtesy of The 2050 Group

Ben Lear was a bit nervous before he visited a juvenile hall while making what ultimately would become his new documentary, “They Call Us Monsters,” about teenagers awaiting trial as adults after being accused of heinous crimes.

He never before had met anyone accused of a violent felony, and had grown up in a world far removed from the gang-infested streets his subjects called home. The 28-year-old is the son of comedy legend Norman Lear (“All in the Family,” “Maude”); he attended the elite Crossroads School in Santa Monica; became a bar mitzvah at Leo Baeck Temple; and was raised in a Brentwood home where actor Walter Matthau was a frequent guest.

But the younger Lear also inherited his father’s penchant for work and activism that tackles major social issues, and so one day in 2013 he found himself sitting down with accused felons taking a screenwriting class at a facility called the “Compound” at Sylmar Juvenile Hall.

“I was expecting them to be just hard, kind of inhuman criminals,” Lear said during a recent interview in Hollywood. “I thought I would feel like they wanted to [physically attack] me. But it turned out that I didn’t feel that for a second. They didn’t want to fight me. They were happy [and] grateful that I was there.

“They wanted to talk, to communicate, to connect, to share, even as they faced spending their entire lives in prison. It was just profoundly human, more human than your everyday experience, because of the barriers between us in terms of where you come from and your circumstances.”

Not just differences in terms of race and class, but also “the fact that they had been accused of these crimes and I hadn’t,” Lear explained. “So it makes you ask the question, Could I be capable of that? …  [And] the answer is yes … under the wrong circumstances.”

“They Call Us Monsters” primarily revolves around three teens facing trials as adults and long prison sentences for gang-related offenses. Antonio, 14, expresses no remorse for two attempted murders; Juan,16, could receive more than 90 years for a first-degree murder; and Jarad, also 16 and the clown of the group, faces some 200 years for four attempted murders in a shooting that left a woman paralyzed.

The documentary follows the boys as they attend a screenwriting class, taught by director-producer Gabriel Cowan, who helps them shape their own movie about a 12-year-old boy’s loss of innocence — all based on their own lives.  At that age, Jarad witnessed his father attempting suicide by repeatedly stabbing himself.

Paralleling their story is the journey of California bill SB 260, which allows some youths tried as adults the possibility of parole after serving a number of years. It became law in early 2014.

The question at the heart of the documentary is whether teenagers should be sentenced as adults — to lengthy prison sentences — or whether they deserve a second chance at freedom after they serve some time. Experts in the film say adolescents’ brains are not fully developed, so they are capable of change.

Lear said he didn’t want to make a white-savior film, with Cowan essentially “riding in on a stallion” to help the teens. Nor was he attempting to create an advocacy movie, though he understands how some viewers could perceive the documentary that way.

But he does believe that SB 260 “made enormous sense to me … because it incentivizes hope. … I would say these kids deserve the opportunity to earn their way out of prison through proving that they’ve changed their lives and that they can be productive, safe members of society.”

He added, “I don’t advocate letting people out of prison just because … obviously, you have to honor the victims as much as you can. … But at a certain point, you have to accept that a human being is capable of change. … You’ve got to work years and years on yourself, emotionally, academically, in terms of job training. … You have to show insight, responsibility and remorse on a really profound level.”

Lear grew up with a father committed to social change and who founded the progressive advocacy organization People For the American Way in the 1980s. The younger Lear said he was aware from a young age that his father was prominent in the television industry, though at the time he was growing up, Norman Lear’s most famous shows were off the air. “But I had an understanding of the cultural resonance,” the younger Lear said of his father’s sitcoms.

Yet as an aspiring filmmaker from age 11, he said he put pressure on himself to match his father’s success in show business “in a ridiculous, childish way. But you’ve got to escape that trap or you’re just going to be stuck feeling like s— about yourself forever.”

Lear switched his youthful ambitions from cinema to music because “on some level, it was something completely different, totally separate and unique,” he said. “And it was nice to have a phase of my life when I was doing something that was completely in my own realm.”

He studied guitar from age 11 — Lear created all the music for “They Call Us Monsters” — earned a degree in musical composition from New York University and penned a folk opera, “Lillian,” a fantasy that also tackled environmental issues.

But by the age of 24, Lear was ready to return to filmmaking. In 2013, he saw the potential for a fictional feature based on a New York Times article he had read involving prison life. “I never intended to make a documentary,” he said.

Instead, Lear set out to research his fictional idea with Cowan, an old family friend, who ultimately decided to teach a screenwriting class at the Compound. The collaborators then turned to Scott Budnick, a producer of “The Hangover” films who also was an ardent activist for juvenile justice. Budnick arranged for Lear and Cowan to visit a variety of youth facilities and to meet people who had been tried as adults when they were teenagers.

“I’d never met anyone from that world before,” Lear said. “And slowly over that period, the idea for a documentary started to form.”

Lear found it difficult to reconcile the ebullient boys he met at the Compound with their vicious criminal charges. “That was one of the challenges that [also] inspired me to make the film,” he said. “I wanted to present that challenge to the world.”

To create some balance in the film, Lear also interviewed the one victim he was able to locate and persuade to appear on camera, Yesenia, the young woman Jarad left paralyzed. She was eager to be in the movie, according to Lear.

“I told her … ‘You’re going to be the voice … of the survivors of violent crime,’ so there’s a lot of dignity in that. It was the same thing that got Juan, Jarad and Antonio to do the film. … I said, ‘You guys are going to be the voice of thousands of teenagers who are locked up and aren’t going to get heard from otherwise.’ ”

At one point during the Journal interview, Lear was surprised to see his friend Frank Carrillo sit down at a nearby table at NeueHouse Hollywood. Carrillo, who was tried as an adult at 16 and given a life sentence for murder, was exonerated of his crime after 20 years in prison and released about six years ago. He was one of Lear’s early consultants for “They Call Us Monsters.”

After giving Carrillo a hug, Lear said, “He is exactly what my movie is not about. His is a very different story … the wrongful conviction story. This is the rightful conviction story. Now let’s figure out what to do about it.”

“They Call Us Monsters” is streaming now at pbs.org.