Liz Garbus, filmmaker of Girlhood, was also co-director of The Farm: Angola, USA (1998), among the greatest-and gloomiest-of all documentaries. At Angola, Louisiana's maximum security prison, there's little hope on earth for the 5,000 male inmates, 75% of whom are African-American, 85% of them who will never escape this hell-house jail except by dying.
Girlhood is also a grim, unflinching, documentary look at incarceration, American style. But there's a flicker of a chance for its imprisoned teen and female protagonists: Shanae, 14, African-American, and Megan,16, white, who, at the beginning of the film, are serving open-ended sentences at the Waxter Juvenile Facility in Maryland. For one thing, the staff at Waxter seem, if not especially trained or educated, decent and humane, and definitely on the side of those girls confined there. For another, and this is profoundly different from Angola's pitiless, intractable parole board, the review panel which decides on the fate of Waxter inmates are open to arguments for sending the girls to freedom. When the girls are penitent, and have paid their dues.
Will Shanae and Megan ever be cleared for release?
At 12, Shanae repeatedly knifed an adolescent friend, and the girl died. Shanae at 14 has a very hard time processing the murder, or feeling anything about it except bafflement. "Am I supposed to be upset, beat myself up for it?" she asks. There's no remorse. Her story is that the stabbing was kind of in self-defense, without intention to murder anyone: "I blanked out." So how was it that the other girl perished? She's almost haughty about it, telling of the fateful day, smirky and detached.
When she's not pondering her crime, Shanae comes off as a pretty nice, not-abnormal girl, with disarming doe-eyes and pigtails. She's given a surprise birthday party at Waxter, with all the other girls springing out at her, and the celebration seems, poignantly, much like what would happen outside of a prison: a teen occasion ending in a pajama-party sleepover. Shanae is ready to split from Waxter, that's her feeling. But Waxter isn't going to consider releasing her until, minimally, she takes responsibility for her homicide. Besides, Shanae's mother is ambivalent about having her daughter come home.
Megan, the second protagonist, is a psychological mess, who has scurried away from countless foster homes before being shipped to Waxter. She's smiling and charming one minute, moody and very down the next, a drama princess. If Shanae mostly ignores Liz Garbus's camera in her face, Megan takes advantage and acts up, having various tantrums, both sincere and calculated, caught on video.
What did she do? "I cut her mostly with my rings," Megan dispassionately discusses a moment of brutality. Other misbehaviors are unspecified, but are motivated, so it seems, by one thing: Megan's screwed-up relationship with her mother, a heroin user and prostitute who, in and out of prison, has barely gotten in touch for years. "I feel like an old woman in a young girl's body," Megan declares, though insisting she's not angry at her mother at all. Her belief: if she could be reunited with mom, all problems would cease.
Girlhood, painful and always compelling, adheres to the informal rules of cinema verite: no voiceover, don't interfere with your non-fiction story, follow wherever it goes. For three years, Liz Garbus gutted it out with Shanae, from 14 to 17, and Megan, 16 to 19. Yes, both girls eventually make it out of Waxter and head homeward to make their fate. On the highway toward Baltimore, their urban nirvana, they seem like Dorothys aglow before the Emerald City.
Both are reunited with their mothers, as real life transforms, in act three, into an old-fashioned Hollywood saga. One girl sputters and flounders in the inner city. The other girl returns to school, makes good grades, and, with love from her family and community, heads for the high-school prom in a stretch limousine. It's a Cinderella ending, only this Cinderella had been drunk and lost her virginity at 10, and raped by five boys at 11.