There's no shortage of films about young men on the street. Young men in the hood, we're told in these sagas, are simply marked for thug life, and little else. The women in these stories are one-note fringe players characterized by their relationship to the men (sexual trophy, griping baby-momma).
That's not the case in Lori Silverbush and Michael Skolnik's heart-breaking small-scale drama, which tracks a few weeks in the lives of three teen-age girls on Jersey City's rough streets. Available now on DVD, On the Outs shows that the pervasive drug-and-thug culture can ruin girls' lives as easily as boys', and that what happens to girls on the streets is a critical component of the inner city's social and economic deprivation.
Here we meet Marisol (Paola Mendoza), who adores her baby girl but can't resist the bliss of the crack pipe. The relatively sheltered Suzette (Anny Mariano) has a tough, caring mom, but finds the attentions of a "grown man" too compelling. The street-corner drug-dealer Oz (Judy Marte) buries her tender side beneath a tomboyish veneer.
In a film just under 90 minutes long, these portrayals are rough sketches, but we still glean plenty. As their lives slip out of their control, Marisol and Oz alternate between despair and rage. But when 15-year-old Suzette is betrayed, her mute acceptance speaks volumes. Despite coming from marginally better circumstances, this is a child who had virtually no dreams to lose.
On the Outs is shot in a loose, gritty, docu-drama style ... the filmmakers use real Jersey City settings and encouraged their young and largely nonprofessional cast to improvise. The fictional narrative is based on stories that the filmmakers collected through arts-outreach work at juvenile-detention facilities.
Thus no event in these girls' lives is that unusual; it is the very ordinariness of their poor choices that an observer feels so keenly. And it's painfully clear that these girls make their own bad decisions. Such moments aren't softened by our pity or extenuating circumstances; they're infuriating.
This is a tough little story, a provocative and non-judgmental snapshot of sad, ordinary lives gone wrong. It's not a TV movie, and offers no false hope. From Jersey City, that ever-visible Statue of Liberty ... with all its promise of better futures to the downtrodden ... is likely just another object on the horizon.