As depressingly pertinent as ever, Antony Petrou’s prison-based drama tells the true story of teenager Zahid Mubarek, who was murdered just prior to his release from Feltham Young Offenders Institute. His assailant, disturbed racist Robert Stewart, is the focus of this fascinating film that also touches on the catalogue of institutional errors that led to the loss of a young life.

Zahid Mubarek (Aymen Hamdouchi) is approaching the end of his short term in prison. His crime, stealing razor blades, and subsequent time served has led him to make some dramatic changes in his life. He is a changed individual, and is keen to see his family again. Robert Stewert (Leeshon Alexander) finds himself sharing a cell with Zahid, having been moved from another prison. His violent past as well as clear racist tendencies are somehow overlooked in the transfer, resulting in him staying in the same room as the Asian prisoner.

Even though Mubarek reaches out to Stewart, the introverted thug is tormented by the voices in his own head. Distancing himself from everyone else around him, Stewart begins to spew terrifying threats towards other prisoners and an alarmed Zahid is forced to raise concerns with the guards who are charged with looking after him. Although his complaint is listened to, a series of incompetent decisions compounded by the inherent racism coursing through the prison system lead to nothing being done about the situation. The result is a horrifying attack on a defenceless young man that needs to be examined.

The framing of the story may be a prison, but the film avoids the pitfalls of genre. This isn’t Starred Up, and it’s not trying to be. This is a character study which takes brave decisions in telling us something we fear happened in the past and hoped had gone away. Both leads are superb, with a star-making turn from Leeshon Alexander. As Robert Stewart, as well as the physical embodiment of his damaged psyche, Alexander justifies the decision to cast him in the challenging role. He wrote the screenplay, and would have faced a quandary when pitching the idea, but by taking on a character he clearly understands and is invested in, we get a more rounded version of Stewart than would have otherwise been possible.

We Are Monster is chilling, but a must-see as a cleverly constructed character study. The slow pace over which the descent into personal hell is what makes it so unnerving. Guilt is appropriately apportioned, with us finding out more about what went wrong and how it should have been avoided. The real concern is whether any of the lessons have been learned, or if we are sleep-walking into another catastrophe.