Kids or ‘monsters?’ New doc follows juvenile offenders facing life sentences

Kids or ‘monsters?’ New doc follows juvenile offenders facing life sentences

Left to right: Antonio, Jarad, Juan; Credit: “They Call us Monsters” Ben Lear

A new documentary takes an up-close-and-personal look at some of LA’s youngest criminals.

“They Call us Monsters” follows three juvenile offenders: Antonio, Jarad and Juan, each sentenced to a facility known as “The Compound.” The Compound is a high-security facility in Sylmar Juvenile Hall that houses LA County’s high-risk juvenile offenders. The young people there face decades, if not hundreds of years in adult prison.

Should they ever be able to leave? Do they deserve a second chance?

These were the questions director Ben Lear explored in his documentary, which tells the stories from the perspective of their young men and their victims. He shared his reflections with Take Two’s Alex Cohen.

(Responses have been edited for clarity.)

When you decided to make this film, and you first showed up, what did you expect to see? What did you think the kids would be like?

I sat in on a writing class in the juvenile hall, and I was bringing in my lifetime’s worth of expectations. I expected to meet these violent-looking, dangerous, intimidating guys. Instead, in walks this group of kids and I was immediately struck by how young they looked and how young they acted. There was this giddiness in the air that was really, really unexpected, and I later realized that it was the giddiness of adolescence, coming of age and self-discovery. They were in the middle of the process of learning about themselves and figuring out what they wanted to do with their lives, all the while not knowing if they would ever get the chance.

After this film, do you like [the decisions they made] were somewhat unavoidable? You grow up in this violent situation and environment, and you’re destined to become violent yourself?

There are so many factors, in terms of their environment and the way that they grew up that would throw them into that life. That’s a key element to the debate that surrounds the film. Because of a recent group of Supreme Court rulings that are declaring that children should be treated differently from adults, it has mandated the states to legislate along those lines, and that has created a rise in conversation around this issue. If legislative halls are debating how we should treat these kids, they should know who they’re talking about; allow me to introduce you to these kids. You can make up your own mind about who they are and what they deserve.

There is another perspective and one that you include in this documentary which is that of the victims. Where do they fit in all of this?

Something that was very important to me was never shying away, or getting too far from the reality of what these kids were accused of. We spoke with the victim of Jarad’s crime; he was accused of four attempted murders, and it was a drive-by shooting situation. It was four young girls in the car, one of whom ended up becoming paralyzed from the waist down. It was this young woman’s opportunity to tell her side of the story and what that experience was like. She says one of the most profound things in the film; she says, ‘I’m normal. I’m just like everybody else; only I can’t walk.’ It’s not directly about Jarad or his crime, it’s just about the reality of her life now because of some horrible decisions.

Press the blue play button above to hear the full interview.