Inside America -- Film Review

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SARAJEVO -- Through the grimly honest eyes of Austrian director Barbara Eder, teenagers in a small town on the Mexican border are shown caught between boredom and violence, the dead-end values of a vacuous culture and absentee parents who seem largely to blame.

In "Inside America," which screened at the Sarajevo Film Festival, Eder, who briefly lived in Brownsville, Texas, negotiates the fine line between a documentary sensibility and highly dramatized stories. No one is saved in the climactic downbeat ending, which will leave a bitter taste even with sympathetic audiences.

This blanket of bleakness would be unusual in an American film, but here each character is built for failure. Almost all are of Hispanic origin, though most of the kids speak English and deride the Mexican "wetbacks" who cross the border and struggle to work without a Social Security card.

Manni (Raul Juarez) is one of these, a quiet youth of good character, who fights peer pressure to hang on to an after-school job. His scrappy girlfriend, Patty (Patty Barrera), struggles somewhat comically with her family's hunt to find her a good husband before she turns 18.

More tragically, her friend Zuleyma languishes in a foster home, ripe for a fall into prostitution. On the other side of the tracks, spoiled cheerleader and beauty queen Aimee (Aimee Saldivar) drinks and sniffs coke, and boyfriend Carlos (Carlos Benavides) gives vent to his violent character at ROTC training and joy rides around town, spraying pedestrians with buckshot.

Although it seems there's not much to like in this crew of unhappy high-schoolers, who include one kid so bereft of self-esteem he can't even sell cookies door-to-door, the nonpro actors are convincingly directed, and their interwoven stories take hold. The girls in particular are closely observed, and with much sympathy.

Still, the film feels a trifle long and repetitive. It seems odd that no space is allotted to a teen who reads books or otherwise manages to escape the town's oppressive atmosphere of guns, drugs and bubble-headedness.

Much of the film has a hand-held doc look, recalling Eder's work on short docs. She is particularly fascinated with how the American Dream still has a hold on young minds, though of course, not for long.

Venue: Sarajevo Film Festival
Production company: Arge Schumann Eder
Cast: Raul Juarez, Aimee Saldivar, Zuleyma Jaime, Luis De Los Santos, Carlos Benavides, Patty Barrera
Director: Barbara Eder
Screenwriter: Barbara Eder
Executive producers: Roland Hablesreiter, Peter Janecek
Producer: Costanze Schumann
Director of photography: Christian Haake
Music: Gerrit Wunder
Editor: Claudia Linzer
Sales agent: Costanze Schumann, Vienna
Unrated, 107 minutes
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