'Ernie & Joe': Film Review | SXSW 2019

Matthew Busch
'Ernie & Joe'
A welcome good-cop/good-cop portrait.

Documentarian Jenifer McShane rides along with two Texas law enforcement officers as they put an innovative and compassionate approach to policing into action.

One of the unfortunate distinguishing characteristics of the American justice system has been its insistence on criminalizing, rather than treating, mental illness. Amid heightened scrutiny of police-community relations, and deepening understanding of mental health issues, including addiction, Jenifer McShane's solution-focused documentary offers proof of an enlightened way forward. Zeroing in on a unit of the San Antonio Police Department, the disarmingly titled Ernie & Joe is a candid, mostly vérité portrait of two cops in a small but paradigm-shifting program — one that breaks down the us-vs.-them mind-set that views people in crisis as offenders and too often, as in the news footage that opens the film, turns them into victims of police gunfire.

Having explored the effect of incarceration on female prisoners and their children in her previous film, Mothers of Bedford, the filmmaker turns to a matter of social justice that couldn't be more basic, especially when 20 percent of the American population lives with mental illness. As well as building a strong case, through example, of the implications for towns and cities across the country, the film delivers telling glimpses of the personal day-to-day coping mechanisms of the cops themselves.

As part of the San Antonio Police Department's 10-person Mental Health Unit, Ernie Stevens and Joe Smarro practice what some of their colleagues disdain as "hug-a-thug" tactics. Dressed in polo shirts and jeans, brandishing no weapons, they sit down with distraught and potentially violent people to talk. They listen. They take their time. If their approach is successful, they guide people into treatment programs — the MHU is a collaborative project with the local mental health community. And, perhaps most astounding, they make follow-up visits to the people they've talked down from the metaphoric and sometimes literal ledge. 

Through dash-cam footage and the nimble, unobtrusive work of cinematographer E.J. Enriquez, the film captures them at work. But McShane, who rides along with them they as exchange deadpan banter, is also interested in what makes this pair tick, separately and together, two years into their partnership. Ernie started the MHU with a former partner and is 10 years older than Joe, a Marine vet of Iraq and Afghanistan who's going through a divorce. In his low-key way, Ernie occasionally expresses paternal concern, or gentle exasperation with his buddy's taste in music.

Among the on-the-job encounters that McShane includes, most of them abbreviated, an eight-minute sequence is particularly instructive and affecting. It catches the title duo in the course of one of their regular uniformed night shifts, rather than in jeans-and-sneakers MHU mode, engaging with a crack-addicted woman who's ready to jump from an overpass. Though the exchange is viewed largely from the respectful distance of dashcam video, her despair and distrust come through loud and clear, as does the measured alarm of the policemen as they carefully chip away at her suicidal certainty. A powerful breakthrough arrives when she admits, at last, "I'm tired."

According to one report, San Antonio's MHU has helped to divert 100,000 people from jail or emergency rooms. It's not clear how many police departments across the country have such mental health units, but over the two-plus years that McShane follows Ernie and Joe, they spread the word farther and farther, teaching crisis intervention not only to other first responders — both local and from outside Texas — but also to public school teachers and nurses. The MHU approach becomes their mission, complete with a TEDx appearance by a nerve-wracked Joe.

There's a "physician, heal thyself" aspect to McShane's film that slowly builds, and it strengthens, rather than detracting from, the wider social significance. To communicate with people in extreme circumstances is one thing; to understand your own anxieties, and the toll that constant exposure to trauma takes, is another. Ideally, they're inextricably linked.

From very different perspectives, Ernie and Joe are doing the work and walking the walk. Compared with the stable home life of his partner, Joe's story is one that checks a few familiar boxes in the realm of mental-health challenges: childhood abuse, combat PTSD. The camera captures him at home with canvas and paint, creating an abstract field of color, and there's nothing precious about it. His voiceover commentary about his painting has an understated, common-sense self-awareness that the film itself embodies: "It's something," he says, "that helps control the thoughts."

Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Documentary Feature Competition)
Director-producer: Jenifer McShane
Executive producer: Andrea Meditch
Director of photography: E.J. Enriquez
Editor: Toby Shimin
Sales: Submarine Entertainment

97 minutes