Down for Life -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

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TORONTO -- Latina street gangs in Los Angeles are the focus of the latest film by writer-director Alan Jacobs, who had modest success with "Nina Takes a Lover" and "American Gun." This kind of self-professed homage to Italian neorealism, where the quest for "authenticity" guides every artistic decision and becomes an end in itself, certainly isn't new, but what's different this time around is the no-holds-barred violence that fills the film to bursting.

An obvious forerunner for the impassioned attention it pays to these tough Hispanic chicks is Allison Anders' "Mi Vida Loca," including even the voice-over narration, but Jacobs' film clearly is superior. But though it's obviously good to be reminded again that certain social problems exist and are getting worse, one wonders who the audience is for this film.

The main character's struggle to escape gang life structures the film and provides a modicum of hope to keep us going, but the primary emphasis is gloom and doom. Just when you think that things can't get any worse for these put-upon 15-year-olds, they invariably do. As such, a domestic distribution deal seems a long shot, though ancillary sales should be better.

The central character, Rascal (Jessica Romero), is based on a real person who was featured in a New York Times article that provided Jacobs with the impetus for the film. Amid the chaos of a completely dysfunctional school, Rascal's teacher, Mr. Shannon (Danny Glover), recognizes her writing ability and tries to get her to apply to a special scholarship program for at-risk youth at the University of Iowa. Torn by a competing loyalty to the "homies" whom she leads -- a loyalty constantly reinforced by threats of violence from male gangbangers to whom her gang is attached -- the film tracks a single, horrific day in Rascal's life. During this day, we witness all-out violence in myriad forms: fistfights with a competing gang, the murder of her best friend because someone wants her cell phone, rape and sexual humiliation and so on. Obviously, if she does make it into the Iowa program, she is going to have story material to last a lifetime.

A nice moment comes when Rascal, kicked out of her house by her angry parents, goes to the valley to stay with a friend who has managed to escape the ghetto. The contrast between the two worlds is immense, and Jacobs beautifully captures Rascal's feeling of having landed on another planet. He also can disdain middle-class pieties in the interests of honesty. For example, instead of tsk-tsking his way through the film, he seems to revel in the girls' joy when they emerge victorious from their encounter with the rival gang.

Jacobs also has a remarkable feel for rhythm. Thus, intense periods of violence are followed by quiet, lengthy periods with no dialogue. (Whether general audiences would appreciate these longueurs is another matter, but they're not going to go see this movie anyway.) And his decision to shoot in the school halls in which all this took place, using the same real-life gang girls in the cast, certainly creates that sense of authenticity that is the Holy Grail for a certain type of filmmaker. Whether this is enough, in an era when reality already rules TV, is another question.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Production: Por Vida Prods.
Cast: Jessica Romero, Danny Glover, Kate del Castillo, Emily Rios, Laz Alonso, Snoop Dogg, Elizabeth Pena
Director: Alan Jacobs
Screenwriter: Alan Jacobs, Trina Calderon
Producers: Scott William Alvarez, Erika Armin
Director of photography: Dana Gonzales
Production designer: Bernardo Trujillo
Editor: Clayton Halsey
Sales: Paradigm, Odin's Eye Entertainment
No rating, 92 minutes