Jersey Barriers

Washington City Paper | January 20, 2006
On the Outs is about life on the streets, so let’s get the inevitable adjectives out of the way: It’s gritty. And at times shocking. And almost always heartbreaking. This first collaboration between freshman writer-director Lori Silverbush and documentary filmmaker Michael Skolnik interweaves the stories of three teenage girls living in the most crime-ridden parts of Jersey City. One’s a dealer. One’s an addict. One lives a relatively sheltered life until she gets involved with a thug.

Even though it’s based on actual events, On the Outs is dispassionate enough to never trumpet that fact. Silverbush, Skolnik, and actress Paola Mendoza, who plays one of the lead characters and is credited as a co-creator on the film’s Web site, began developing On the Outs by setting up an acting and writing program in a New Jersey juvenile-detention center. Working with a selection of the inmates’ stories, the trio set out to cast actors who came from backgrounds similar to the kids’; they also invited the detainees to give their input during production.

The result, shot on quivering digital video, feels as disturbingly real as 2003’s similarly themed Girlhood. The film’s biggest flaw might be its opening, with the directors’ messy storytelling introducing you to all three girls and the people in their lives in such quick succession that it can be difficult to grasp their circumstances. But then again, Silverbush and Skolnik might be intentionally keeping viewers unsure and unsettled—after all, that’s an appropriate way to depict lives as unsure and unsettled as their main characters’.

Oz (Raising Victor Vargas’ Judy Marte), the dealer, for example, is introduced getting released from a detention facility and going home to a mentally challenged man, Chuey (Dominic Colon), whose relationship to her isn’t clear. Later, a family gathering reveals him as Oz’s brother. And the woman who looks to be about the same age as Oz? That’s her mother. The middle-aged woman at the table is Grandma.

A progressive sense of time is lacking, too, though one can’t imagine that any one of the girls’ days is much different than any other. Fifteen-year-old Suzette (Anny Mariano), baby-faced and naive, gets impregnated by Tyrell (Don Parma), an older dealer who hangs out with loud, chest-thumping gangstas who like to get wasted and play Russian roulette. But instead of getting the abortion her mother schedules for her, Suzette runs off with Tyrell, often looking terrified of the company he keeps and quickly learning that she won’t necessarily have a safe place to sleep every night. Oz continues selling crack but remains sickened by those who use—foremost her mother. Marisol (Mendoza) has a toddler she adores, although her love for her daughter is about neck and neck with her love for crack, which lands her in the detention center and her little girl in foster care.

If it all sounds too gritty, shocking, and heartbreaking to be convincing, it isn’t. The lead actresses inhabit their characters effortlessly, and Silverbush and Skolnik add authenticity by filming on Jersey City’s roughest streets, using locals for smaller roles, and eschewing the emotional cues of a score. And though the majority of the movie shows the girls dealing, smoking, or just witnessing the constant unrest in their neighborhoods, a few scenes stand out: A couple of boys, no more than 10, trying to buy drugs and then pulling a gun on the dealer. Marisol’s daughter screaming because she hasn’t eaten and there’s no food in the house. Suzette ending up in a cop car, where she meets an apparently younger girl who asks, “Is this your first time?” Suzette shaking her head no.

The filmmakers render such scenes with a rawness that never feels cheap or dishonest—even when they’re selling the big-picture tragedy summed up in Oz’s question to a detention-center guard: “How can you work here? For real—doesn’t that hurt your heart?”

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