In the opening of director Ben Lear's heartbreaking and illuminating documentary They Call Us Monsters, screenwriter Gabriel Cowan sits at a table with four boys in a juvenile detention facility. For the next several weeks, Cowan will visit the boys and write a short screenplay with them that he'll then direct. To start, Cowan teaches the boys how to play the "Yes, and…" game to collectively write a story, but as hard as he tries to end the narrative on a positive note, Jarad, 16, just won't let it happen. "That's not how it actually ends," Jarad says. The brutal reality these boys face in a juvenile justice system that wishes to treat them as adults is encapsulated right there: Hope and joy turn quickly to inevitable pain.
Each boy infuses the characters of that screenplay with his own personal stories. Juan, 15, speaks shyly of being afraid of love and being in love with a girl named Abigail -- a name then given to the protagonist's friend. But as open as these boys are with emotions, they're also master deflectors, often telling the stories of their own lives as though they were tales they'd overheard.
What's fascinating is how absolutely normal, hilarious and hyper-intelligent these kids are. In this structured environment, they treat one another like brothers, sharing food and offering encouragement. They respect their superiors, whom Lear often catches trying to hide fatherly smiles from them. The director doesn't make the boys saints -- there are interviews with their victims -- but he does paint a complex portrait of underserved children seemingly destined to end up in prison for life for no better reason than that they had no support.