A Heartbreaking Portrait of Teen Girls Vs. Drugs, Men and Inner City Life
"On the Outs" puts teen age girls front and center in as moving and disturbing docudrama like films that focused more on boys, from "The 400 Blows (Les Quatre cents coups)" to "Kids."
This is the distaff side of where the child drug dealers in HBO's "The Wire" come from, with Jersey City a strikingly similar locale to Baltimore. We see the intertwining and exacerbating problems of poverty, poor health, violence, and weak education with the destructive impact of drugs cutting a hurricane-like swath through their community and defeating individuals who try to stand up in its rip tide.
Three young black and Latina women, who intersect in the streets and in a juvenile detention facility, have the tragic contradictions of typical adolescents, especially of ones thrust way too soon into the adult world. (As Rush ironically sang: "We are only immortal for a limited time.")
We see the tough young dealer determined to make it in a man's world (the charismatic Judy Marte of "Raising Victor Vargas" as "Oz") who thinks she can nevertheless keep her family free of drugs and dealers; the loving but cocaine addicted single mom (a heartbreaking Paola Mendoza as "Marisol") who forgets to buy her daughter milk; and the naive lover (the pivotal and very non-amateurish Anny Mariano as "Suzette", who says in the accompanying film guide that she was inspired by her sister's experiences) of an older "Sportin' Life" of the streets-type -- the changes in her eyes over the course of the film illustrate the girls' trajectory.
The acting is uniformly excellent. Don Parma, in his screen debut as "Tyrell," is almost as devilishly riveting as Michael K. Williams's "Omar" in "The Wire," which is really saying something. The actresses portraying mothers and older relatives fairly showcase the difficulties these women have in preventing their daughters' from repeating their mistakes.
There are a few weaknesses. I was unclear what the passage of time was -- a month? More? We don't really understand how "Oz" got so tough and started dealing in drugs. It's a bit heavy-handed, if ironic and poignant, to frequently show the girls in silhouette to the unattainable Manhattan skyline, particularly of the Statue of Liberty. I also think writer/directors Lori Silverbush and Michael Skolnik want us to think of the bureaucrats they brush up against as rigid and uncaring, but, sorry, I don't think a foster child should be returned to an irresponsible addict not committed to a drug rehab program, regardless of how she got or stays that way. The "Scared Straight" approach didn't look effective, either, by further weakening the girls' self-esteem. At least the white middle-class employer of one girl's housekeeper mom wasn't drawn too stridently.
Some scenes use a herky-jerky whir that's a bit dizzying, and it's unclear if there's thematic consistency to its use or if they were artsy, cinematographic accidents.
The original music and selected songs were excellent, ranging from gospel (the beautiful opening "Motherless Child") to hip hop to singer/songwriter (Imani Coppola's lovely "Freedom Come"), particularly considering the small budget.
I'm not sure who the teens outside the theater were who appreciated my attending one of the last screenings in New York City, but they very helpfully directed me to the background booklet the filmmakers' produced which is essential in providing information that was not in the credits, and not just on the actresses's and creators. The booklet explains that the script grew out of a summer the creators spent working at a juvenile jail in Secaucus, N.J. and how they work-shopped the script with the actors. It also includes resource information on the problems of and solutions for girls caught in the juvenile justice system that are also linked on the film's Web site.
But there are no easy solutions for the three girls we cry for in this film, even as there are hints of hope.
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