Judge Adam Arseneau knows all the ins and outs.
A drug dealer. An addict. A runaway. The story of three girls.
A dramatic narrative of the perilous lives of inner-city adolescent women in America, On The Outs follows three Jersey City girls around their daily lives. Not quite a documentary, not quite a drama, the film inhabits the uncomfortable world of hardship and despair: real life.
Facts of the Case
Oz, 17 years old, is a hardened and streetwise drug dealer with a corner carved out and a thriving business, but her family is unraveling behind the scenes. Her mother is a recovering addict, her brother is mentally challenged, and every day she spends in jail is another day her family gets to self-destruct.
Suzette is a normal, everyday 15-year-old girl with a loving mother and sister who ends up falling for a tough gangster boyfriend a good ten years older than he is. To her mother's horror, she ends up pregnant and refuses to accept the fact that her new boyfriend is nothing but the perfect man for her, even when his lifestyle lands her in jail as an accessory.
Marisol (Paoula Mendoza) is 17 and a single mother in Jersey City, trying her best to divide her time between her child and her drug habits. When her habit gets out of control, she is thrown in jail and must fight the foster care system tooth and nail to get her daughter back—a feat harder than kicking drugs.
Created by documentary filmmakers, On The Outs doesn't really feel like a movie in the strictest sense of the word, nor does it feel particularly like a documentary. It feels like a slice of real life, or like a reality television show without the annoying editing and self-referential interviews and narration: a "docudrama," if such a thing existed. Without little manipulation, the film simply shows the lives of three young women as they go about their business and occasionally cross paths, skillfully edited to provide a viewing experience that never feels stale or repetitive. It is a cinematic narrative created by people who think in terms of documentary structure and, as such, manages to capture the authority and realism of the first format with the dramatic impact of the second. It is a clever trick.
In many ways, On The Outs reminded me much of the depressingly bleak Requiem For A Dream, if only because we are introduced to characters who do not fall from grace, but rather fall from a place already much lower than grace. Things go from bad to worse for the three women in On The Outs and their descent into chaos is inescapable. Each film also showcases the spectacular ways in which drug addiction can sabotage a human existence. Like both films, the lack of redemption is kind of a downer, as most of the characters end up far worse at the end of On The Outs than when they started. The ending tries to stir up some hope, but the subject matter is too morose to have any real lasting effect.
The unfortunate part for these three women is that things only seem to make sense in their lives when all three are incarcerated together. In jail, their lives are structured, controlled, and routine. They are free from drug addiction, the influences of others, their parents, and the drama that surrounds their normal existence. Still, "on the outs," things have a tendency to be far worse. There is a tragic irony at work here, even worse when you consider how much research went into the film on the part of the filmmakers. Directors Lori Silverbush and Michael Skolnik and co-creator/actor Paoula Mendoza spent months at a juvenile youth facility befriending the women there, offering them creative input in their developing film project, sharing their experiences on the street, and casting as many local Jersey City persons as possible.
Shot on DV, On The Outs has an impressive digital presentation. Colors are vibrant without being garish, black levels are deep and rich, and detail is immaculate. It simply looks real and natural without seeming artificial or excessively digital, with none of the trademark visual tells of digital film. Even during night sequences, the presentation avoids grain and murkiness.
Though only a stereo presentation, the audio is full and strong, with great bass response and clear dialogue. A surround presentation is always nice, but if a stereo presentation does the job admirably, who are we to complain?
Extras are fairly plentiful as well. We get an enthusiastic commentary track with directors Lori Silverbush and Michael Skolnik and co-creator/actor Paoula Mendoza who are all more than happy to go into detail about the planning and production of their film. We also get a small "making of" featurette and some on location interviews with Punky Pagan, one of the actors from Jersey City featured in the film, as well as a small scene from an upcoming documentary called "Autumn's Eyes," which crosses into On The Outs as the subplot of Autumn, Marisol's child who gets taken into foster care while her mother is in jail. Most interestingly, we also get an interview with Cookie, the real-life Jersey City hustler who inspired the character of Oz. Cookie is a bizarre individual and appears to be the approximate dimensions of a refrigerator, but her interview adds serious credibility to the film's authenticity.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It is hard to call such a film entertaining and doubly so without sounding like some sort of asshole. Educational, certainly; the film is well-researched and presented with the authenticity that only experienced documentary filmmakers can muster. Still, I can't imagine I'd ever want to see On The Outs again. I have positive praise for it, but it isn't a film that says "watch me" again and again.
The docudrama format by its very nature is based more on realism than entertainment, and the film simply offers no incentive for a view to revisit. The subject matter is so well-delivered and concise that a single viewing is all you need.
A dramatic narrative of simplistic honesty and crushing realism, On The Outs is supremely confident in its abilities. It presents the story with minimal manipulation, allowing the tragedy of three young adolescent lives to smack around the viewer's emotions. It is a forceful piece of filmmaking presented on an excellent DVD.
Kind of a downer at times, but most certainly not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Polychrome Pictures
• Creator's Commentary
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