One gets the feeling these days that all the world might be a documentary, and we men and women merely players. Chronicling the stories that slip through media cracks, Moxie Firecracker Films’ prolific Liz Garbus and Rory Kennedy extend to society’s forgotten ones a now common reality-TV luxury: deferential curiosity that borders on star treatment. The technique can work well, as in 1998’s Oscar-nominated The Farm (about Louisiana’s Angola prison), where the trust Garbus and co-director Jonathan Stack earn from prisoners transforms investigative dispatches into urgent activist theater. At times, though, things tip toward indulgence—in the Garbus-produced, Kennedy-directed A Boy’s Life, a charismatic but abusive grandmother demagogues the proceedings for a camera seemingly rapt by her dangerous, photogenic radiance, until violence snaps the spell.
Despite similar excess, Garbus’s follow-up to 2002’s The Execution of Wanda Jean provides another powerful glimpse inside the American justice system. Girlhood tracks two teenagers in a Baltimore detention center: Butch beauty Megan’s in for assault with a box cutter, baby-faced Shanae for (at age 11) stabbing a friend to death. The two prisoners bask in camera love, describing their crimes with matter-of-fact bewilderment and recalling childhoods characterized by neglect and abuse (in one stunning example of semantic dissonance, Shanae almost doesn’t tell a counselor about having been gang-raped a year before the murder, seemingly unsure whether it counts as “sexual abuse”). Both girls combat adult-level stress with regressive childishness, longing for the mothers who couldn’t protect them. When they’re released, Garbus captures these inevitably rocky reunions. The scope widens to consider the effects of multigenerational poverty on women—Megan’s mom is a career prostitute in service to heroin, and Shanae’s describes leaving her daughter alone and working two jobs to get them out of the projects. The state ineptly plays family, though when more tragedy strikes Shanae, it’s the center’s women who support her. At film’s end, both girls are in school, and Megan is vehement about not wanting to “just be the same old person around the way all the time.” In the last scene, a flashback to incarceration, Megan sing-raps a song about her mom, her gorgeous voice as shocking as her model-perfect features. We stare along with Garbus, like respectful fans, offering only the paltry comfort of acknowledgment.