First time director and University of Texas student Barbara Eden’s film
Inside America is one that has the look and feel of a documentary, and that’s far from a criticism. It’s an unflinching and often uncomfortable look at the disparate lives of a handful of teenagers in a Brownsville, Texas high school, as they struggle for identity and survival in a cultural morass of racism, crime, and class conflicts. The film offers few solutions to its exposure of societal wounds, instead choosing to expose the harsh truths about its subjects.
The film focuses on six teens — Patty (Patty Barrera), a young Latina who’s barely surviving school and pinning the hopes of her future on her troubled boyfriend Carlos (Carlos Benavides), who’s in the country illegally, working at a drive-through tortilla factory, and slowly getting more and more embroiled in an escalating gang conflict. At the other end of the spectrum is Aimee (Aimee Lizette Saldivar), an upper class beauty queen contestant whose desperation for attention manifests itself through her beauty queen aspirations and her ROTC boyfriend Ricky (Luis De Los Santos), who spends his time doing paintball drive-bys and hiding his shameful secrets. Also at play is Zuly (Zuleyma Jaime), a foster home frequent flier whose time is running out, Fuego, Carlos’ gang rival, and the lone Caucasian kid who is strangely invisible and slowly dying of loneliness.
Filled with a cast of no-names, directed by a young first timer, and set in a high school, the film has every chance to be a failure, or to fall into any of a host of cliche traps. However, director Barbara Eden succeeds wonderfully, through a combination of unrelenting honesty, bleak realism, and a phenomenal eye for catching moments in the characters’ lives that not only are believable, but that actually feel real. There are moments when the film feels like “The Wire Season Four - South Texas Edition,” not because it apes Simon’s show in any way, but because the gritty, almost vérité realism is so well done.
It’s not a film for the meek, because Eden refuses to pull punches, and from the onset, the film’s trajectory seems one bound for tragedy. It has moments of genuine humor, as well as soft moments of genuine sweetness, which makes the film’s harsh path all the more bittersweet. The children — and be they 15 or 18, they are children, are all flawed, yet even the most unlikeable ones you’ll find sympathetic. Saldivar’s snotty beauty queen, born into wealth and privilege, would have been the easiest one to resort to a rote, Hollywood teen stereotype, but she’s given a surprising depth that ultimately works. She’s still a snotty brat, but that doesn’t mean you can’t feel something for her.
Similarly, the bad kids are bad. But there’s more to them to that, and the film lays those flaws and qualities bare, enabling a vulnerability that’s frequently uncomfortable to watch. That’s as much a testament to the writing and directing as it is to the acting, which is, while imperfect, rings remarkably true. There’s a sort of solemness and hopelessness that’s well translated by the kids, even though their performances aren’t always consistently good. They may not be consistent, but they’re still raw and real enough to be notable.
The downside is that with a sizable cast and so many stories, the film ultimately feels too long, and gets bogged down in parts. It never becomes totally sluggish, but it could easily have trimmed a few minutes or a couple of plot points. That distraction was unfortunate, and Inside America may have benefited from a bit more editing.
Yet in the end, the movie was a surprising success that left several audiences in a state of shock at its desolate honesty. It’s not a happy film, and that’s its strength. That it provides no real solutions will be perceived by some as its weakness, but I liken it to those same criticisms about Spike Lee — Eden is simply showing you the problems and the questions. The real success will be if it gets people to start talking about the answers.