'Game Girls': Film Review | Berlin 2018

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
An intimate if rather unrevealing portrait of romance on the skids.

Documentary filmmaker Alina Skrzeszewska ('Songs from the Nickel') premiered her second feature in the Panorama Doumente section of Berlin.

Game Girls, the second feature documentary from Polish director Alina Skrzeszewska (Songs from the Nickel), chronicles the many ups and downs (mostly the latter) of an African-American lesbian couple scraping by in L.A.’s Skid Row neighborhood.

When the film begins, one of the women, Teri, is coping with mental illness, while the other, Tiahna, has been locked up in jail for drug dealing — which means that what you’re about to witness will not necessarily be a smooth ride. In that sense the director does not disappoint, though Skrzeszewska sticks so close to her subjects that, during their darkest moments, she seems to be toeing the line of exploitation. At the same time, she clearly films these women with compassion, showing how hard it is for love to survive on the street, especially in the case of two people have so much to fight against. After premiering in Berlin’s Panorama section, Girls should see additional festival screenings and pickups in Europe from pubcasters and VOD outlets.

Granting us what seems like unlimited access to the lives of Teri and Tiahna over the course of a year or so, we follow them from their happy union after Tiahna’s release to the difficult days they spend trying to scrape by on Skid Row — an area made up of 55 city blocks in downtown Los Angeles, and whose homeless population is estimated to be around 10,000. (None of these figures are provided in the film, which gives us zero background information as it plunges us into the world of its two protagonists.)

The girls definitely form a lively pair, with Teri, the older and rougher of the two, first seen dropping a litany of f-bombs and trying to pick a fight in the street. But they manage to find solace and tenderness in each other’s arms, although soon enough anything seems like an excuse for a major fight — even a case of spilled milk (so much for the famous idiom). Things seem to be going good for a while, until they quickly go bad again, and the film’s most disturbing scene happens late in the game when the two get in the kind of violent domestic dispute that one often sees on episodes of Cops. The fact that Skrzeszewska decided to show this to us is questionable — is it necessary to air so much dirty laundry to get your point across? — even if she seems to underlining how Teri and Tiahna are willing to stick together through the absolute worst of it.

More interesting is how we see the two navigating Los Angeles city bureaucracy in order to receive public assistance, and, later on, the possibility of affordable housing outside the Skid Row area. Neither of the women seems to have gainful employment, with Teri unable to hold down a job due to an (unexplained) behavioral disorder. Yet the city does offer them a way out of the slums, while also allowing them free counseling in the form of group therapy sessions where they act out personal stories using toys.

There is no doubt that Teri and Tiahna have a lot to overcome, and the fact that, on their best days, they manage to make it work is a testament to their resilience. But Game Girls doesn’t really go beyond its fly-on-the-wall approach to its heroines, offering us lots of intimacy but nothing that really sets its story within a greater social or political context. Skid Row appears in the film more as a backdrop, or as a place to escape from, than as a character in own right — even if some footage is devoted to a street wedding and a Black Lives Matter protest. But Skrzeszewska doesn’t quite know how to turn the tale of Teri and Tiahna into something greater than it is: that of two troubled souls who seem to need each other as much as they need to take a break.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama Dokumente)
Production companies: Films de Force Majeure, Studio Lemon, in co-production with Blinker Filmprodkution, ZDF
Cast: Teri Rogers, Tiahna Vince
Director: Alina Skrzeszewska
Producers: Jean-Laurent Csinidis, Meike Martens, Kelly Parker
Director of photography: Alina Skrzeszewska
Editor: Emmanuelle Baude
Sales: Doc & Film International

90 minutes

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