In the Lower East Side coming-of-age tale Raising Victor Vargas, Judy Marte played a distracted, traumatized girl whose pained silences could be perceived by neighborhood kids as a sign of haughtiness. Now as Oz, one of three young women we follow through a mean season in Jersey City, Marte rivets as a tomboy roughneck, a corner store thug with a drug addict mom and mentally challenged brother. Oz’s story weaves through those of two other women whose paths she crosses in juvenile detention—the naive Suzette (Anny Mariano), charmed and knocked up by a flossy but homeless local dealer who proceeds to get her into even more trouble, and Marisol (Paola Mendoza), an addict–single mom whose absences result in her toddler being siphoned into Child Protective Services.
Like documentarian Liz Garbus, whose 2003 Girlhood traces the lives of two girls in and out of lockdown, the filmmakers gathered real tales of woe. The lives of On the Outs‘ characters, cobbled from the circumstances of girls in Jersey detention, sometimes feel like the composites they are. But despite some bit players who use occasions like a flophouse round of Russian roulette to pretend they’re in a Damon Dash flick, the central trio handles the narrative burdens well. Mendoza may overplay her tantrums and Mariano lay too far back, but they’re ultimately sympathetic. Marte is the obvious star, of course, swinging effortlessly from cool compassion when Oz takes her adoring brother to play vids in Times Square to the hard-skully sass and brawl of dead-end hustling. Most importantly, the environment feels real: the accents, the snaps, the working moms and warehouse crack nooks, every dilapidated stairwell, every bodega and lovingly appointed teenage bedroom sanctuary. Even frequent panning toward the Emerald City of Manhattan and the stark commentary of Lady Liberty throwing shade at Ocean Avenue blight don’t seem excessive. After all, that’s the view. On some days it looks like hope; on others, hypocrisy.