`Girlhood' compelling and frustrating, too

November 26, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The title Girlhood splits in two on the opening credits, with "girl" and "hood" on separate lines. Obviously, the director, Liz Garbus, wants to achieve in a documentary the power and revelation of a fiction feature like Boyz N the Hood. And she comes achingly close to succeeding.

As she follows two Baltimore teen-age girls through the Maryland juvenile correction system, her intimate focus and her responsiveness to their plight keep us rooting for their rehabilitation. But even when the system seems to work for one of the girls, Garbus doesn't quite open up the process - and audiences may leave wondering whether they've learned anything or have just been part of a social sensitivity session.

A block of text at the film's start says that violent crime among women has more than doubled in the United States over the last decade. Then Garbus takes us into the Thomas J.S. Waxter Juvenile Facility in Laurel and introduces Shanae, who stabbed a girlfriend to death, and Megan, a chronic runaway from foster homes who assaulted a girl with a box cutter. (She says she did the most damage by hitting the victim's face with her ring hand.)

Garbus establishes a close rapport. She captures unguarded moments in her interviews, so when you learn the background of the crimes, the girls' inadequate or confused responses to their own misdeeds are as provocative as the details. Shanae started playing drinking games at 10, had sex the next day, was gang-raped (we learn an hour in) at 11, and committed murder at 12. All her conscious life - we first see her at 16 - Megan has felt the prospect of following the path of her drug-addicted mother as a curse. (Megan's mom has been in prison more than she's been out of it, due to drug use and, says her daughter, prostitution.)

In three years, Shanae moves from the juvenile detention center to a halfway house before returning to her mother. Megan gets out earlier, but never stays in one place very long. Shanae committed the most serious of crimes, yet she's open-faced and radiant. She's the sweetheart of the Waxter facility, even if she only gradually, and grudgingly, comes to terms with taking a girlfriend's life. Megan, by contrast, is all over the place in her behavior and emotions, simultaneously able to annoy her supervisors and flirt with them.

The movie's most jolting revelation is the gap between these girls' vision of themselves as struggling adolescents and our recognition that they've committed murder or mayhem. The picture is both compelling and frustrating because Garbus doesn't provide all the observations or insight that would help us fill that gap.

The director keeps the action moving; the girls' external journey from Waxter to the outside world has enough built-in drama to hold us. Yet the little we see of rehabilitation within Waxter doesn't inspire confidence. One gentleman uses caricatures of a clean-cut man and woman and a cartoon of a swaggering street girl to illustrate "positive" (or "effective") and "negative" behavior. At moments like that, Garbus suggests the institution's inadequacies. But Garbus doesn't go far enough with even an implicit critique. Is the system being humane or negligent when it tosses Megan out because she's just "spinning her wheels"? The juvenile justice workers appear to be dedicated, patient people; it would help to understand their frustrations, too.

We want to know what works and what doesn't with these girls. When Shanae starts reading psychology books, we want to find out exactly what she learns. The "girl" part doesn't satisfy our curiosity about either teen. For the most part we lose sight of Shanae as soon as she is fast-tracked for success. The dramatic balance shifts to Megan, whose resentment of her mom is understandable. Their inability to connect is tragic. But blaming Megan's misfortune on an ongoing cycle of bad upbringing is too general and too easy. Megan remains an out-of-reach enigma, seemingly "readable" but impossible to pin down and rapidly spinning out of control.

The "hood" part of these stories isn't satisfying, either, especially when it comes to Megan. Bisexual like her mother, smoking weed and (her mother says) popping Ecstasy, Megan falls back on the street. But Garbus doesn't bring us close enough to feel the attraction of it. Her approach is too conventional to encompass the full chaos of these open-ended, ongoing tales. She has enough skill to make us feel the weight of family calamity when it hits Shanae, but not enough to expose subterranean emotions or bring out the nuances of crime and punishment in young people.

In an era of exploding documentary innovation, Girlhood simply follows unfamiliar characters down familiar paths. It's not a negligible experience, but it's not an eye-opener, either.

Girlhood

What A documentary by Liz Garbus

Unrated

Released by Wellspring

Time 82 minutes

Sun Score **1/2

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