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Down for Life
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by Jay Seaver

"It feels authentic, which is tragic."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2010 BOSTON FILM FESTIVAL: "Down for Life" has good bona fides where authenticity is concerned: It's based on a New York Times magazine piece, much of the cast was plucked from the South Central Los Angeles streets where it is set, and during the festival Q&A its start confirmed that it was true to her experiences. That's better than many films that flash a "based on a true" story credit, and though this one seems to fudge the ending a bit, it generally manages to balance drama and realism.

The film is presented as an essay that "Rascal" (Jessica Romero) is writing in hopes of landing a spot in a summer program. We're soon introduced to her mother Esther (Kate del Castillo), who used to run with a gang but went straight, and stepfather Rafael (Kurt Caceres). What Esther doesn't realize is that Rascal is not just a member of a gang, but the leader of its girls. Before school, they provoke a fight with an African-American group (Rascal's gang is mainly Latina), steal their car, and bring it to the chop shop. That gets the other gang as riled up as you expect. There are tensions everywhere for her, though - while her teacher Mr. Shannon (Danny Glover) is encouraging her to apply to that program in Iowa, gang leader Flaco (Cesar Garcia) sees that as a threat to his authority over all members. Tensions at home have her trying to crash with Vanessa (Emily Rios), a former classmate who has moved to a nicer neighborhood, but her mother won't have that...

The life of a gang member, whether male or female, is violent, and Down for Life does nothing to hide this. Director Alan Jacobs does an unusually good job of showing violence as both part of everyday life in this environment and genuinely terrible. The opening fight between the girl gangs is technically remarkable - the vast majority of movies with a much larger budget that are trying to sell action to an audience don't choreograph and shoot a group of nine or ten nearly so well; this one keeps them all in frame and looking much more like they are fighting than dancing - but it's partially upstaged by a detail from before the first punch being thrown: The girls take off their dangling earrings without breaking stride; this isn't a catfight, they know that someone looking to inflict damage (as they are) will go right for those, and they've got practice. He does other things, too: He keeps sexual violence to a relative minimum, keeping the focus on danger to life and limb and not making this about men vs. women; he shows it as just as likely to arise from supposed friends as enemies (violence as a tool for maintaining a hierarchy); he makes it sometimes be almost completely random, with no warning or plausible justification. Those of us living in a better area will recoil, but the cast just plays it as something they deal with.

There are only a few recognizable faces in that cast, and most (Elizabeth Pena, Snoop Dogg) are there for what amount to extended cameos. Danny Glover is the teacher everybody wishes they had, determined but not flamboyant. The character is written as more overtly nervous around the school's principal than the gang kids in his classroom, but Glover always plays him as passionate but sensible enough to be cautious, even when he chooses not to be.

The kids are where the movie is looking to make an impression, of course, and it certainly manages that. Mostly, it's about having the right attitude; the girls carry themselves right, look reasonably fierce and able when throwing down, and choose the right moments to just a little some of the characteristics we expect teenage girls to have (the giggling, the teasing). Of course, one of the two we spend the most time with is actually more like that; Emily Rios plays Vanessa as acclimated to living in the nice part of town, and in a way she plays as the opposite to Mr. Shannon - she's the one who doesn't really know what she's getting into. Jessica Romero, meanwhile, nicely plays Rascal as keeping her dissatisfaction under wraps, although bits filter out at times. We can easily believe that she's the leader of this group but also that her days in that position won't last forever, because while she's brave and almost certainly the smartest in the pack, she's not really the fiercest or hardest.

A lot of the impression Rascal makes on us is not necessarily from Romero's performance as much as how Jacobs and his cinematographers show us her environment. South Central, for instance, is a dangerous place, with schools like fortresses and Esther's and Rafael's house seeming like a tiny oasis; almost every scene inside feels like it's trying to keep the world out. The bus ride to meet Vanessa seems to be taking Rascal to another city as opposed to a neighborhood a few miles away. And Iowa seems like a place she can barely conceive; in her daydreams it is bright, wide-open, and fades not to black but to light around the edges.

"Down for Life" isn't quite a masterpiece, or even necessarily close: The trade-off for casting authentic kids is the occasional bit of unpolished performance, and while the story is told well up until the end, the filmmakers may go one step too far in trying to make their story both tragic and hopeful. That's just a slight last-reel misstep, and doesn't undo the hour and a half of good work that comes before it.

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originally posted: 10/01/10 01:00:12
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Boston Film Festival For more in the 2010 Boston Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

12/02/12 Lana Camilla love the movie 5 stars
12/02/12 Lana Camilla love the movie 5 stars
10/11/10 none.of.your.buisness MY FAVORITE MOVIE 5 stars
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  DVD: 14-Jun-2011



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