'Jacinta': Film Review | Tribeca 2020

Jacinta Still 1  - Endeavor Pictures - Publicity _H 2020
Jessica Earnshaw, Courtesy of Endeavor Pictures
A searingly honest portrait of kinship and addiction.

Photographer turned filmmaker Jessica Earnshaw's feature debut took home the Albert Maysles New Documentary Director Award at Tribeca.

[Note: In the wake of the Tribeca festival's postponement this year, The Hollywood Reporter is reviewing select fest entries that elected to premiere digitally for critics.]

In the hard-hitting and heartbreaking documentary Jacinta, a young mother suffers the effects of drug addiction that plagued her own mother as well, prolonging a cycle of abuse and incarceration that repeats itself across generations.

Stories of narcotics, jail and recidivism are, alas, nothing new in America. But what sets apart this debut feature from photographer turned director Jessica Earnshaw is a portrait of dependence — both emotional and substance-based — that's told through a strictly female point of view, as well as a level of proximity that takes the viewer so close to the characters and their rash of terrible decisions, you sometimes want to look away.

One movie that comes to mind here is Pedro Costa's seminal 2000 work In Vanda's Room, which sat uneasily between fact and fiction as it chronicled a Portuguese woman's descent into opioid limbo. In Jacinta, everything we're seeing actually happened, with Earnshaw granted full access to her titular 26-year-old subject over a period of three years. The result can be a tough watch at times, but also a powerful one, especially when it reveals the way family bonds can both nurture and destroy.

When we first meet Jacinta, she's at the tail end of a nine-month stint in a Maine prison where her mother, the 45-year-old Rosemary, is also incarcerated. The two share a loving and playful relationship that's undercut by an awful truth: Both of them are drug addicts (heroin and crack, respectively) and convicted criminals, with Jacinta in and out of jail since she was a teenager — which is also the age she had her daughter, Caylynn. The fact that Rosemary also had Jacinta when she was a teen, and began committing crimes around that age as well, underscores a mother-daughter streak of addiction and detention that Caylynn, who's 10 years old and lives far away with her paternal grandparents, can hopefully break.

Like many ex-con movies, Earnshaw's doc centers on whether its protagonist will go good or bad once she heads outside the prison gate. For the opening reels, it seems like Jacinta could be headed the right way. She reunites with her father — a man who seems to have suffered way too much loss in his life — as well as with Caylynn, who loves her mother as much as she keeps her at arm's length to avoid further disappointment, proving to be the more mature of the two.

After only two weeks of freedom, Jacinta starts using again. "It's all I know," she says earlier on, referring to heroin and the lifestyle it breeds. Indeed, between Rosemary, who was a drug addict for much of her adult life, and other people within their crumbling Portland, Maine, community, it's as if Jacinta is simply doing the thing she does best: getting high and getting in trouble. When we learn later that both mother and daughter were also sexually abused as children, all of it tragically starts to make a little sense.

Earnshaw, who also served as cinematographer, hardly ever leaves Jacinta's side, even, and especially, when things start heading downhill. The sequence where we see the latter jump in a car and drive off from her halfway home, looking to score a hit for the first time since she's been out, is jarring in its honesty. Other scenes show Jacinta shooting up, visiting Caylynn while probably under the influence and, eventually, turning again to crime.

None of this should end well and it doesn't, at least for a certain time. But then the true story takes an unexpected turn or two, revealing the extent to which people can surprise us — especially people we've written off as just another sad statistic, as another victim of America's ongoing and relentless opioid epidemic.

In a playing field usually occupied by men, the fact that Jacinta focuses on three generations of women whose lives have been upended by drugs and crime makes it a rare study, albeit one you wish didn't have to exist. (At one point in the film, we do catch a glimpse of Rosemary's son, Todd, who's serving out his own jail sentence and seems to have been traumatized by a tumultuous childhood.)

It's a sad reality that, at least in the waning Maine microcosm Earnshaw is capturing, the sexes seem to be on equal footing. That doesn't mean, however, that Rosemary, Jacinta and Caylynn need to accept such a reality so easily. You don't have to be a drug addict to love one, and the movie leaves open the possibility that the family curse could be temporarily quelled, if not fully broken, by the level of affection the women share for each other. One of the most moving lines is when Jacinta simply says: "I feel like I made by mom proud."

Production company: Endeavor Pictures
Director: Jessica Earnshaw
Producers: Jessica Earnshaw, Holly Meehl, Nimisha Mukerj
Executive producers: Dan Cogan, Jenny Raskin, Geralyn White Dreyfous, Regina K. Scully, Patty Quillin, Jamie Wolf
Cinematographer: Jessica Earnshaw
Editor: George O’Donnell
Composer: Gil Talmi

Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Documentary Competition)
Sales: Cinetic Media

105 minutes