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Kids for Ca$h
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by Peter Sobczynski

"A Story So Appalling, You'll Think It Was Set In Arizona"
4 stars

There will no doubt be more artfully-made documentaries released in 2014 but when it comes to generating righteous anger in audiences, they will have to work overtime to match either the impact or the pure fury of "Kids for Cash."

The film tells the unbelievable story of a Pennsylvania community that, in the wake of the Columbine tragedy, elects Mark Ciavarella, a charismatic law-and-order type, to serve as the judge for local juvenile cases. Early on, we hear him speaking to students and assuring them that if they step out of line at all, he will come down on them hard and he proceeds to do just that by taking kids accused of acts that would barely warrant a detention in most cases--including such crimes against humanity as creating a MySpace page mocking a teacher or buying a scooter that, unknown to them, was stolen--and, after rushing them through hearings in which they were assured did not require the presence of a lawyer, and sentencing them to years in the local juvenile facility. However, it is only when it is discovered that Ciavarella and fellow judge Michael Conahan are accused of a complex money-laundering scheme involving the closing of the state-run juvenile facility and the opening of a private for-profit institution that the community begins to feel outrage, especially when it is suggested that they may actually be receiving kickbacks with each new inmate they are able to supply through their overly punitive sentences.

Using archival footage as well as interviews with bewildered former inmates whose lives have been shattered, guilt-ridden parents wishing they could have better protected their children and, incredibly enough, extensive interviews with Ciavarella and Conahan, whose smugly self-righteous justifications for their behavior only serves to make them look and sound worse with each passing scene, "Kids For Cash" presents a story so utterly outrageous that it seems impossible to believe that it could have possibly happened in America. (At the outset, we learn that while 193 countries around the world have signed on to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child--an act devoted to protecting the basic human rights of children--the U.S. is not one of them, along with Somalia and the South Sudan.) As advocacy documentaries go, director Robert May doesn't exactly reinvent the wheel but with a story as powerful as this (including one agonizing gut punch of a reveal towards the end), a fancy cinematic style is not necessary.

As for Ciavarella, I cannot begin to fathom why he would have ever thought that appearing in this film would be a good idea but we should all be glad that he did--if he ever wakes up one morning and doesn't think of himself of one of the worst human beings on the planet, all he has to do is pop in the Blu-ray and remind himself of that fact.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=25963&reviewer=389
originally posted: 02/28/14 14:01:27
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USA
  07-Feb-2014 (PG-13)

UK
  N/A

Australia
  07-Feb-2014


Directed by
  Robert May

Written by
  N/A

Cast
  (documentary)



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