The question I had through much of debut filmmaker Jessica Earnshaw’s exquisite documentary Jacinta (on Hulu starting October 8) is what made her decide to follow Jacinta with a camera for three years? How did she know before she invested all of that time that Jacinta’s experiences would produce such a powerful, heartbreaking film?
Because there’s nothing particularly exceptional about Jacinta, a 26-year-old Mainer who is finishing out the last month of her prison sentence when the documentary opens. Aside from a lively personality and a dangerously co-dependent relationship with her mother, 45-year-old Rosemary, there’s not a lot that separates Jacinta from the many others serving sentences for drug crimes in a dying mill town. But maybe that’s the point. Jacinta’s story is not unlike that of so many others in dead towns dotted all over America.
But that’s not entirely true, either. Jacinta has a caring, supportive working-class family that adores her, and she adores them, particularly her mother, whom she followed into a life of drugs and petty crime because that’s what the mother she worshipped did. In fact, she serves time with her mother, and when she’s released, she’s devastated to be separated from her. Rosemary is the only thing that holds more power over Jacinta than heroin.
On the outside, meanwhile, she lives in a sober house and vows to remain clean. In that pursuit, she has the support of her father and brother and is motivated to do so for the sake of her own 10-year-old daughter, Caylynn, who lives with her paternal grandparents but otherwise fawns over her mother in spite of her absence. Jacinta manages to remain clean for a few weeks, but eventually, the pressure of trying to be the mother that Caylynn wants gets the best of Jacinta. She gets high, and then she hates herself for doing so, and then she gets high again to combat her self-hatred, and the cycle perpetuates itself. She occasionally manages to break loose, but no matter how hard she tries, she ends up back with a needle in her arm.
At a certain point, there’s not a lot of directions Jacinta can go — Will she break the cycle? End up back in prison? Overdose? — and it’s hard not to wonder occasionally what responsibility Earnshaw has to her subject, whom she sees engage in illegal acts and self-destructive behaviors. At one point, a high AF Jacinta even nods off while she’s driving, presumably while Earnshaw is recording the scene from the passenger’s seat.
But again, that brings me back to the question of: Why? Why follow Jacinta? How did Earnshaw know that her film wouldn’t end in tragedy a week into filming? How did she know that Jacinta would be such a compelling figure? That she could articulate her feelings as a daughter and mother so eloquently? That Jacinta — who agreed to the documentary thinking she’d be a success story — wouldn’t walk away from the project in embarrassment when she fell back into the cycle of addiction?
It’s remarkable when any documentary of this nature works out, that a snapshot of someone’s life can form a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. It’s doubly remarkable here that Earnshaw — who earned the Albert Maysles New Documentary Director Award at the Tribeca Film Festival — can produce a film so compassionate, so beautiful, so heartbreaking, and so impeccably photographed out of the life of someone America has otherwise forgotten. Jacinta is not exceptional — she’s one of the hundreds of thousands of drug addicts who live in and out of prisons (or worse) — and that’s what makes Jacinta so exceptional. It’s a reminder that people like her are more than their addictions, that they are more than the mug shots and dead bodies we see on the local news. They may be controlled by drugs, but their lives do not have to be solely defined by them.
Jacinta premieres on Hulu on Friday, October 8th.
Header Image Source: Hulu