Wellspring // Unrated // $24.98 // May 18, 2004
Review by Gil Jawetz | posted August 29, 2004
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Growing up can be tough but you never really realize just how the pressures of being a kid can conflict with the pressures of being an adult until you meet someone who's had to do both simultaneously. Liz Garbus' 2003 documentary girlhood examines the lives of two Baltimore girls incarcerated in a juvenile detention center for violent crimes. While the girls have both ended up in the same place their paths have some very telling differences.

Shanae has a loving mother as well as a father who seems to be in her life to some extent (which, sadly, gives her a leg up on many of her inner-city peers) as well as a sharp mind and bright smile. Still, at the age of 12 she was locked up for stabbing a friend to death. This crime is shocking, as is her apparent lack of appreciation for the severity of what she did. When the film introduces her she looks like a sweet little girl but as she tells her story the darkness quickly creeps in. Using drugs and alcohol (as well as having her first sexual experience) at 10, and shamefully hiding a rape from her family at 11, it's hard not to see the big picture tragedy that led to Shanae's murdering a friend. It's extra sad when you see the values her parents try to instill in her during a home visit, explaining in realistic, honest detail that she needs to take responsibility for her actions and that her incarceration is something she brought on herself. Along with the staff at her detention center, Shanae's parents really want her to turn her life around.

Megan (the girl from the cover art), on the other hand, has no support system. The daughter of a prostitute, junkie mother and no visible father, she seems primarily to crave affection and attention. While she's in the detention center for assault, her behavior is classic teenage girl melodrama. She feigns a headache or stomach ache and practically begs for attention. Her giddy laugh and wide smile show a real desire to be a normal girl. The fact that under all the misery she's actually a beautiful, eloquent girl underscores the terrible truth of what a waste her upbringing was. She's so clearly capable of more than she's done that it just makes you sick. But at the same time she's so trapped in the downward spiral that it's really hard to see how she can climb out.

Garbus sticks with the girls for three years, during which time the viewer really gets a sense of life in a juvenile detention center. At one point early on when a smooth male staffer walks down the hall, responding to the voices from behind locked cell doors it really dawns on you how strange the environment is. Instead of the expected glimpses of hardened criminals through the thin glass windows, each room contains smiling, goofy little girls. You can't help but feel that their stories are rarely told. From Megan's desperate attempts to find structure and love to Shanae's slow process of understanding what she's done, Garbus takes us through a real emotionally true coming-of-age. There are no simple happy endings (and one shockingly horrible surprise late in the film) but there is some sliver of hope. By the end, both are living on the outside, although with varying degrees of success. Still, if they can make something of their lives after such difficult beginnings it perhaps means that the system has some value after all.

The full-frame video is colorful and reasonably sharp. The bright green of the girls' uniforms and detention center walls really jumps out, making the locked-down environment that much more surreal. This is a modest documentary production, but visually Garbus and videographer Tony Hardmon did a fine job.

The audio is available in Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1. There isn't much of a difference, given the subtle nature of the source material, and location recordings aren't always completely clear, but considering the nature of the film and the sometimes-thick accents of the subjects, the voices are surprisingly distinct. Theodore Shapiro's original music is expressive and sounds quite good.

A commentary track from Garbus has quite a few gaps but she discusses really interesting aspects of the production. She really seems to have connected with the girls and shares some insights into their lives that really help understand them better. She also offers excellent observations, like how ironically (and tragically) it's only inside a detention center, away from the dangers and distractions of the streets, where these girls can actually be the teenage girls that they so desperately want to be.

There's also a trailer, as well as weblinks and a filmography. It's a shame that additional scenes weren't included since Garbus describes some - like Megan bragging about the details of a failed escape - sound really interesting.

A very well-made documentary, girlhood reveals some truths about growing up in the ghetto that actually might surprise viewers. After a lifetime of cloying docudramas on the subject it's amazing to actually learn something new, but Garbus' clear eye and ability to draw out emotional honesty in her subjects helps elevate this piece from merely interesting to powerful and moving.

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