Movie's over

the story is not

Viewers fascinated, but offscreen there's no happy ending yet

For the Record

November 23, 2003|By Lisa Pollak | Lisa Pollak,SUN STAFF

Inside the movie theater, the audience couldn't take their eyes off her. Outside the theater, it was anyone's guess where she was.

Her name is Megan, and she's one of two Baltimore teen-agers whose experiences in the juvenile justice system are explored in the new documentary Girlhood. This past week, at the film's Baltimore premiere, many of the people who appear in it were on hand to celebrate, including staff members from the Thomas J.S. Waxter juvenile facility in Laurel. But of the two young women featured in the documentary, only one - 18-year-old Shanae Watkins - attended. Megan, though she knew that the event was taking place and told the director she was coming, did not.

"Her days are about survival," said director Liz Garbus, who was disappointed but not surprised that Megan, now 19, did not show up for Wednesday night's premiere at the Charles Theatre. (Megan's last name is not revealed in the film, and Garbus said she made an agreement not to share it.) "I think often times she doesn't even know where she will spend the night. ... She's an amazing kid who's bright and articulate and has tons of potential. She just needs to get a little help."

Megan's absence was a poignant reminder that the troubles portrayed in Girlhood did not disappear when the credits rolled. Of the two main characters in the film, Megan has the less serious criminal history, with a record of assault and running away from foster homes. But it is Shanae, who was 12 when she stabbed a girl to death in a fight, who transforms during the three years chronicled in the film from a remorseless teen-ager to a seemingly rehabilitated young woman on her way to junior prom.

Megan's story line, on the other hand, does not end as hopefully. "Everybody's telling me, all my life, you're going to end up just like your mother," Megan says at the beginning of Girlhood, referring to her mother's drug addiction and prison record. As the film unfolds, the line comes to seem prophetic. By the end, Megan is out of detention and living on her own, smoking marijuana to get high and fighting with her mother, Vernessa, who is back on drugs and headed for another stay in prison. Without much of a support system - or apparent supervision from juvenile justice authorities - Megan moves around frequently, at one point living in eight different homes in the span of eight months. She explodes with rage and hurt during one argument with her mother. "I'm tired, and I can't handle it," Megan says of her life. She says she's hearing voices and feels as if she's going crazy.

It's no wonder that, during a question-and-answer session after Wednesday's screening, one of the first questions for director Garbus was about how Megan was doing now. The answer - "She's still in Baltimore, kind of in the same place that you saw her at the end of the movie" - is as troubling to Garbus as it was to the audience.

In the year and a half since filming ended, the director has been actively involved in trying to get help for Megan, taking her to a counselor and hooking her up with an attorney who is helping her apply for disability benefits. (Garbus says Megan has been diagnosed with a psychological disability, but so far benefits have been denied.)

But it's not easy to help someone who often resists help, and Garbus, who lives in New York, knows Megan needs all the local support she can get. "I can bring her to her first counseling appointment, but I can't make sure she goes to her second," Garbus said. "What she needs is people in her community who are in her corner."

If she'd been there Wednesday night, she would have seen that she already has them. Audience members were riveted by the charismatic young woman and moved by her struggle to overcome the problems in her life. After the premiere, Garbus was approached by several counselors wanting to reach out to Megan, and the director says she'll pass along their contact information just as soon as she tracks Megan down.

"Sometimes I'll lose her for a little bit of time, but she always resurfaces," Garbus said. "Even though the film is over, she's still in my life ... and I won't abandon her."

"Girlhood" opens for its regular run at the Charles Theatre Wednesday.

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