The new documentary "Girlhood" isn't a horror movie, but there isn't another movie this year that chills the blood as quickly as the brief exchange caught on camera between a 15-year-old girl and her parents. Sitting in the back of her mother and father's car, Shanae -- one of the two teenage girls at the center of Liz Garbus' arresting nonfiction film about young offenders -- declares that the schoolmate she stabbed to death a few years earlier has it easier. After all, Shanae explains, at least the dead girl is in heaven.
When "Girlhood" opens, Shanae (we never learn her last name) is serving time in the all-girls unit at the Thomas J.S. Waxter Children's Center in Laurel, Md., some 20 miles from Baltimore. Shanae has been at Waxter longer than any other inmate and after two years she's itching to get out.
It's no wonder. Just last week Waxter made headline news in Maryland after having been labeled by one children's rights advocate as a "house of horrors." At Waxter, girls like Shanae who have been sentenced for crimes, girls who would make mincemeat of the fillies in "Thirteen," are placed alongside those who, as one news story put it, "have not been found guilty of anything yet." Except, perhaps, being born poor and grievously disadvantaged.
Despite the locked doors and garish green paint daubing the hallways, the Waxter center doesn't look all that forbidding. Instead it resembles one of those depressingly familiar, underfunded and understaffed holding pens for social throwaways -- in other words, it looks as much like an inner-city high school as a correctional institution. The hard cases penned up here are girls whose youth, bright smiles and flashes of irritation at being kept under lock and key belie their grim, violent histories. Girls like Shanae and the film's other principal subject, Megan, a disarmingly appealing teenager who, bounced from one foster home to another (11 total), landed in Waxter after slicing open another girl with a box cutter.
Shot on digital video and Super 8 film over the course of three years, "Girlhood" provides a partial account of what happened to Shanae and Megan under the state's alternately guarded and careless watch. Through abbreviated, seamlessly edited scenes, the girls are observed lurching through the juvenile penal system by awkward fits and starts. The two attend classes, hang out (rarely with each other), argue with their adult keepers, pout and rage and confess their secrets to Garbus' carefully unobtrusive camera. Although large chunks of time seem to pass by unrecorded, the pair's personalities emerge through numbingly familiar stories of sexual assault, abandonment and substance abuse. As to be expected, the revelations are often heartbreaking, at times infuriating, but because the film runs a total of 88 minutes they're also manifestly unenlightening.
It isn't just difficult to do justice to Shanae and Megan in an average of 44 minutes apiece; as it turns out, it's impossible. "Girlhood" isn't about an abstraction like the wrongs of the state penal system -- indeed there is very little about how Waxter works (or doesn't) day to day -- it's about two very real and complicated kids, each of whom could fill up hours of screen time. You get a sense of just how complicated when Shanae finally cops to her guilt. There's no suggestion that the teenager feels any true remorse, only that she's learned how to deploy the same hollow psychological platitudes as her jailers. But Garbus sidesteps this queasy unpleasantness either because it pains her or because it doesn't fit with the triumphant survivor story she's trying to tell.
The history of American documentary cinema is rife with well-intentioned filmmakers like Garbus who have trained their cameras on the abject, the neglected and the powerless. There's no denying the seduction and importance of a lot of this work, but sometimes it isn't enough to turn a camera on other people's catastrophes. It's easy to see what attracted Garbus to Shanae and Megan and why, after spending three on-and-off years with them, she would want to hang a proverbial silver lining on their stories. The impulse to end on an "up" note, to turn complex and contradictory lives into palatable narratives, is one of the least-examined pitfalls in nonfiction filmmaking. But in her attempt to give their lives a shape that the girls themselves seem to resist, this talented filmmaker has done both herself and them a disservice.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Adult language, some drug use, strong emotional content
A Moxie Firecracker Production for TLC, released by Wellspring. Director Liz Garbus. Producers Liz Garbus, Rory Kennedy. Editor Mary Manhardt. Photography Tony Hardmon. Original music Theodore Shapiro. Head of production Julie Gaither. Co-producer, sound Amy Goodman. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes.
Exclusively at Laemmle's Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills (310) 274-6869.