Down For Life

posted October 25, 2009 02:10:00 PM CDT | 4 comments

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The words “based on true story” are some of the most misleading you will ever read. On the big screen, it’s sort of the opposite of the fine print, words deliberately meant to fool you — but in plain sight.
Filmmakers take the nuts and bolts of a story, fasten them together and then drench them with any number of emotional plasters meant to snag an audience visually in a little over an hour. So to see these words spangled in the opening credits, however true they might be, is usually a turn-off.
Down For Life appeared at the Toronto International Film Festival last month, where Variety coined the film “The Biggest Surprise of TIFF.” It made its U.S. premier Thursday, October 15 at the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre as part of the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival. It’s a film that’s based on a true story.
Somewhere between the Hilary Swank’s tear-craving Freedom Writers and the Brazilian Scarface, City of God, lives Down For Life. It’s a typical, day-in-the-life tale where Rascal, attempts to walk the ever-familiar balance beam between gangbanging and wanting out. Based on, Essays In Search of Happy Endings by Michael Winerip, which appeared in New York Times in 2005.
One of these stories, written by a 15-yeard old at Locke High School in South Central Los Angeles named Lesly Castillo, inspired filmmaker Alan Jacobs. He began a three-year quest to represent her story on the big screen. By letting the story tell itself.
Following the City of God formula for authenticity, Jacobs made it a point to keep it real. He filmed at Locke High School. Elizabeth Peña, Laz Alonso and Danny Glover (with a cameo from Snoop Dogg [click to read]) perform along side newbie actors “pulled out of lunch lines.” These first-timers include the film’s star Jessica Romero as Rascal. Bare-knuckle brawling, appearing throughout the story, used “gang fights on YouTube” as tutorials. There are no Spanish subtitles despite plentiful Spanglish usage. Hardly anything appears filtered or refined aside from the writing program in Iowa that Rascal is striving (with enduring encouragement from Glover as her teacher) towards. A not-so-ironic addition to the story by Jacobs, reaching towards the hood-scholastic appeal of Freedom Writers.

There are also moments that aren’t easy to watch. Not quite on par with an American History X “curbing,” these events are equally chilling and set a sobering tone. The eerie blend of slow motion and silence that the film employs to showcase these moments only add to the overall authenticity of the story at hand.
Thematically the story could have taken a variety of avenues — brown vs. black, ghetto femininity, overcoming challenges, bad schools, gangland L.A., domestic derangement — but instead Down For Life is about Rascal. Romero portrays character who deals with bits of all those themes without being fully pitted against one. She’s a character you find yourself rooting for, not in a right vs. wrong, linear way, but in a way that’s primal. You want Rascal to live to fight another day because Rascal isn’t “based on a true story,” she is the true story. 

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