Monday, January 20, 2014

Gathr Previews Presents: Kids for Cash

Before the movie, the folks at the Regent asked if I had any pull with the Gathr people, so that they could get something a little more upbeat in the series - Summer in February was admittedly a downer and this sort of movie can be a hard sell as well. I kind of wish I'd realized that Black Out was the next one in the series; what I remember of it from Fantasia is that it's actually a fun, fast-paced caper, and I'm looking forward to giving it a second shot, as I was wiped the first time.

One thing that I was a bit curious about once this movie had a little more time to sit for me was the demographics of Luzerne County - I think all of the kids shown as victims in this movie were Caucasian, and I wonder if this is generally representative, a reflection of who was willing to talk to the filmmakers, or unintentional bias from trying to show that the teenagers sentenced were good kids who didn't deserve this. It doesn't really matter for this movie individually, but if you expand its themes to the problems with America's for-profit incarceration industry and the juvenile justice system in general, that's an issue that will come up and deserves examination.

And I think those are broader themes that do deserve an audience's attention - as bad as what Mark Ciavarella and Michael T. Conahan did was, the bounty system that the phrase "kids for cash" conjures up isn't the root problem the way that jail as an answer to every societal ill (and a for-profit industry to facilitate it) is. Kids for Cash tells its story well enough, but eventually drifts too far from the bigger picture.

Kids for Cash

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 14 January 2014 in the Regent Theatre (Gathr Previews, digital)

"Kids For Cash!" makes a great tabloid headline - heck, it looks good on a broadsheet when something akin to the scandal that this movie documents is discovered. It may not be the best title for this particular film, though - aside from only sharing the same subject as William Ecenbarger's similarly-titled book, it winds up limiting compared to the various issues that director Robert May brings up over the course of a somewhat scattered film.

That is the phrase that entered the public consciousness a few years ago, though, when Luzerne County, Pennsylvania judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael T. Conahan were accused of sending juvenile offenders to a correctional facility they had a financial interest in for minor offenses. The stories we hear from roughly a half-dozen of the hundreds of victims are terrible. There are, however, elements that may not exactly argue that there's another side to the story, but that the characterization of it as a simple transaction is not entirely accurate.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this movie is the way that May covers all of the angles, including ones that are seldom seen in the same film. Yes, he talks to a number of the kids who were imprisoned, as well as their parents, those involved in their defense, and the reporters who worked on the story for the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader. There are man-in-the-street (well, man-in-a-diner) interviews and visits to a local talk-radio show. But, fascinatingly, there is also plenty of face time with Ciavarella and Conahan; even though we see footage of one of the parents screaming at Ciavarella outside the courtroom about how her son is dead because of him, both parties participate in the film. It's almost disconcerting, given how "___ declined to be interviewed" is such a staple of the documentary where the focus might be even the slightest bit contentious.

Full review at EFC.

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