Sundance’s ‘Son of Monarchs’ Is the Spiritual and Scientific Anthem We Didn’t Know We Needed


Still from “Son of Monarchs” (Courtesy: Sundance)

By Frank Gardner, Assistant Arts Editor


Director and biologist Alexis Gambis’ award-winning film “Son of Monarchs” made its international premiere on Jan. 29, the second day of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

This semi-fictional film explores the political, scientific and spiritual borders shaping the life of Mexican-American biologist Mendel (Tenoch Huerta Mejía). The film follows Mendel as he reconciles with his past, researches DNA sequencing in butterfly wings and embraces the spiritual connection between humans and animals. 

Making of a Monarch

The opening scene shows a young Mendel (Kaarlo Isaacs) and his older brother Simon (Angel Adrián Flores) exploring the Michoacán forest, a major stopping point along the migration path of the monarch butterfly. It is revealed almost immediately that both of their parents have died — which Mendel can not remember and does not fully understand.

The film cuts forward to Mendel’s adult life in New York City. After receiving a call from his uncle, he finds he must return to Mexico for his grandmother’s funeral. While there, we see the close relationship he has with his extended family and a strained one with his brother, who works in the mine that flooded and killed his parents. Mendel’s uncle then tells him that gangs are destroying the surrounding area — including the monarch forest — and poisoning the residents. 

Before returning to New York, he reunites with Vicente, an old friend. He brings Mendel to a ceremony to mark the passing of Mendel’s grandmother. Vicente and a few other people from town perform the ceremony with animal masks on. Mendel is deeply intrigued by this and his transformation begins.

Mendel’s Metamorphosis 

The film weaves through memories of Mendel’s childhood and events in the present. In each of the segments from his past, we find out more about his relationship with his family and his propensity for seeking answers to life’s questions. In the present, he begins to confront his trauma and build a relationship with Sarah (Alexia Rasmussen). 

Mendel reaches a tipping point as he realizes he must address his past. Distancing himself from Sarah, he recreates the ceremony he witnessed Vicente performing. Yelling into the night, he releases the pain he has been carrying. 

Mendel reconciles with Sarah and returns home to Mexico with her for his niece’s wedding. There, he finally addresses the tension between him and his brother. In the final scene, Mendel goes with Vicente to perform another ceremony, and he takes his shirt off to reveal a tattoo of monarch wings and puts on a butterfly mask. 

Filmmaking Under a Microscope 

The brilliant cinematography is the handiwork of Gambis as well as cinematographer Alejandro Mejía. Many shots in the film are through the lens of a microscope that shows Mendel’s research. This experimental technique is stunning and reflective of Gambis’ passion for combining filmmaking and science. 

The Monarch, a Migrant 

In a Q&A after the premiere, Gambis explained his idea of using the monarch as a symbol in the film. It functions as a representation of Mendel’s life as a migrant, his heritage and his connection to animals and nature. Gambis, who is French-Venezuelan, said that he has been told many times he “doesn’t look like a scientist” and hopes to change that perception through representation in filmmaking.

This film is deeply personal and immaculately complex. The themes and plot tie seamlessly together to tell Mendel’s story, send a powerful political message and show the compelling connection between science and spirituality. 

For updates on available showings and screenings of “Son of Monarchs,” visit the official Sundance Film Festival website.