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GIRLHOOD (director/producer: Liz Garbus; cinematographer: Tony Hardmon; editor: Mary Manhardt; music: Theodore Shapiro; cast: Shanae Owens, Megan Jensen, Vernessa Jensen, Antoinette Owens; Runtime: 88; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Rory Kennedy; Wellspring; 2003)
“A worthwhile close-up look at two of the troublesome girls who are representative of the problems society faces.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Liz Garbus, who was nominated for an Academy Award in 1999 for The Farm: Angola, USA, shoots in her latest an unflinching cinema verite documentary about two teenager girls who committed violent crimes and are now incarcerated at Maryland’s Waxter Juvenile Facility. The girls the film follows for three years are Shanae and Megan, as the film begins in 1999. They both received open-ended sentences and their release depends on their current jail behavior. Shanae is a plump black girl who mentions she lost her virginity in the Baltimore projects when she was 10, was raped by 5 boys at 11, and did drugs in her adolescent years as she hung out with the wrong friends. Her divorced mom moved to the suburbs to get her out of harm’s way but Shanae, though never arrested, still managed to find again the wrong friends and display bad conduct at home. She got into a knife fight at 11 with her girlfriend and fatally stabbed her three times. Because of the serious nature of her crime Shanae has been locked up for over two years and is anxious to go home when the film begins, but showing no remorse for her crime and acting like an obnoxious brat. The other protagonist is Megan, a troublesome mixed race teen who has a tattoo going up her right arm and is always giggly thinking everything is not serious. Her crime was that at 14 she cut up another girl with a box cutter in a dispute, and since she’s been at the facility has gotten into some kind of trouble every day. She has lived in foster homes most of her life, as her white mother Vernessa is a drug addict and a prostitute who served a long stretch in jail and is currently once again serving time in the Baltimore Detention Center. Megan professes a love for her absentee and irresponsible mother, but does not receive the same support that Shanae gets from her more caring mom.

The film pivots from the girls to their relationships with their moms, as Garbus follows their development from girls into young ladies. The family situation takes over as more important than the help they received through the criminal justice system. The girls as well as their moms were open and seemed to not hold back their emotions for the camera, with Megan a virtual basket case of excitability and the childish Shanae changing for the better as she matures. The film is told from the girls’ subjective viewpoint and plays as a coming of age story.

What was particularly sad was the uninspired rehabilitation measures tried by the staff at Waxter, as the girls received little help that was useful and seemed to be going buggy in an atmosphere where the staff might have been decent but were certainly clueless on how to treat the girls. With the girls going nowhere at Waxter, they were given a new lease on life by changing facilities. The 16-year-old Shanae was placed in the Florence Crittenton Group home and the slightly older Megan was rewarded for trying to run away by gaining her official freedom. She was farmed out to live with a foster parent. The staff never followed up Megan’s progress as they should have and she was unsupervised when she suddenly left the foster home and lived with friends, thereby returning to drugs and her former East Baltimore street life. When Megan’s mom got released from jail, she even lived there for awhile. But Megan seemed like a lost cause as her pleas for love go unanswered and her unchanged bad behavior goes unchecked, as she gets into a verbal spat with mom and splits. At 17, she was living in her own apartment in a druggie neighborhood. Shanae, on the other hand, received strong support and had to follow strict rules her 32-year-old diabetic mom insisted upon, so that when she was released to her home she had someone to lean on for support. Shanae even overcomes the death of her mom three months later from a heart attack and goes on to graduate from a public high school and enroll in a community college. The difference between one girl supposedly climbing out of her bad situation and the other continuing in her dead-end path, is seen as a matter of good parenting and a child willing to change her bad ways.

That Ms. Garbus was able to get so close to her likable subjects and allow us to see that they are not quite the monsters we might perceive from reading the newspapers about such bad girls, is what makes this film so special. We can see for ourselves how much love they need and how dangerous it is to think that institutions alone can solve these societal problems.

The film left me with mixed feelings about the girls who crave love but seem so self-absorbed that they show so little concern for anyone else not in their radar, as I questioned what kind of punishment should there be for girls who commit violent crimes. I didn’t see any reason to be as guardedly optimistic as Ms. Garbus seemed to be about stemming this problem through good parenting and realizing that teens are smarter than we think, and sometimes they have no choice but to figure things out by themselves. To come to those safe conclusions is something that no one in their right mind would argue, but it really doesn’t get to the heart of what has gone wrong in this affluent country that has so many children in trouble with the Man. I believe that you can’t examine this increasing youth crime problem among girls without studying how the capitalist system effects social conditions.

There was nothing in this film that led me to believe that society has a handle on the current youth crime situation, and that made me sadder than the plight of these two confused girls who were trying to grow up too fast and came up short. To think that one out of two might have straightened out her life, is not saying that the system works. Nevertheless, this is a worthwhile close-up look at two of the troublesome girls who are representative of the problems society faces.

REVIEWED ON 10/16/2003 GRADE: B-

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”