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Down for Life

Has the same problem as some of its characters — namely, an excess of unwarranted attitude.

John Anderson

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A day in the life of a Latina gangsta, “Down for Life” has the same problem as some of its characters — namely, an excess of unwarranted attitude. Still, a breakout perf by tyro thesp Jessica Romero should provide this gritty if sloppily made street drama with a boost into theatrical play, where teen auds rep the audience most likely to give Alan Jacobs’ fifth outing a fist bump at the B.O.

Based on a 2005 Michael Winerip story in the New York Times, titled “Essays in Search of a Happy Ending,” the atmosphere-rich pic concerns 15-year-old gang leader Rascal (Romero), who’s also the best writer at her Los Angeles high school — in short, the kind of storyline that needs “based on a true story” attached in order to disinvite aud’s utter disbelief.

Mr. Shannon (Danny Glover) wants to nominate Rascal for a teen writer’s program in Iowa; the principal, Mrs. Castro (Elizabeth Pena), thinks there are more deserving students than Rascal, who, when she does show up at school, does so armed. The script, by helmer Jacobs and Trina Calderon, is basically about how close Rascal can come to a meltdown without blowing her chances to get out of East L.A.

The plot of the movie parallels Romero’s own life story, which should soften critics’ reactions to a pic that is often continuity-free. (After a terrific fight staged by stunt coordinator Julius LeFlore, Rascal is left with a cheek-spanning welt that, for the rest of the film, seems to have a mind of its own, disappearing and reappearing at will.)

But Romero, discovered at a South Los Angeles high school, is utterly convincing; it’s a shame, then, that the pic often displays an outsider’s perspective, and tosses in a smattering of stars who are downright distracting. Glover and Pena are fine, but Snoop Dogg? It’s almost an insult, considering the really standout work done by Laz Alonzo, who plays a no-nonsense school cop who goes the extra mile to try and rein the wild girls in.

Still, the portrait of gang life among adolescent L.A. girls is gripping and grim: For Jacobs’ 15-year-olds, joining up means being gang-raped by the boys and beaten by the girls. Despite all the street rhetoric and tough-girl posturing, the females are still subordinate in a culture that’s patriarchal right down to its criminal element. And once you’re in, you are, as the title says, down for life, which is the problem for Rascal: As the classically conflicted character, she’s torn between allegiance to her peeps and a chance at a better life — a life of the mind.

Tech credits are slipshod, particularly makeup and camerawork, which go through many inexplicable permutations.

Has the same problem as some of its characters — namely, an excess of unwarranted attitude.

Review: A Jailhouse Lawyer (With a Law Degree) in ABC’s ‘For Life’

Inspired by a real-life story, the new series is a more nuanced than usual take on the legal-prison-mystery-family drama.

    Feb. 10, 2020

“For Life,” the new ABC drama about a Bronx inmate on a life sentence who becomes a lawyer, belongs in the small but increasingly relevant genre of the unjust-incarceration story, joining works like the currently screening film “Just Mercy” and Ava Duvernay’s Netflix documentary, “13th.”

As a drama series focused on a particular social-justice issue, with specific reference to race, it’s in tune with the times — such shows are common on cable and streaming — but still a rarity on broadcast-network television. That might be why it’s arriving in February (13 episodes beginning Tuesday), away from ABC’s more prominent fall premieres, the popcorn dramas “Emergence” and “Stumptown.” (It recalls Fox’s spring showing of the police-shooting drama “Shots Fired” in 2017.)

So the debut of “For Life” serves as a small marker in an evolving national conversation. But it’s also an indication — and this is more interesting, from a critic’s point of view — that ABC is maintaining its current roll. The sci-fi adventure “Emergence” and the private-eye drama “Stumptown” emerged, along with CBS’s “Evil,” as the most entertaining and emotionally engaging shows the Big 5 networks came up with last fall. And “For Life” also looks promising, though critics were given only three episodes to go on.

Better-than-the-network-average has been the byword of the show’s creator, Hank Steinberg, whose previous series were “The Nine,” “Without a Trace” and “The Last Ship.” They played unusual variations on crime and combat formulas, and their inventiveness was always notable if not always successful. (One of the show’s executive producers is Curtis Jackson, better known as 50 Cent, who’s also a producer of the Starz series “Power.”)

In “For Life,” which is loosely inspired by the story of a former New Jersey inmate, Isaac Wright Jr., Steinberg doesn’t shirk the familiar images and situations of the jailhouse story. We get the rushed phone calls, the stare-downs in the yard, the tense and cramped conversations in the visiting room.

They’re handled with restraint and finesse, though. And the big moments of inspiration and melodrama — the courtroom victories and family rapprochements that are unavoidable in this story, from this source — are also more subtle than the network norm. (It’s noticeable, too, that Steinberg chose to start the action after the central character, Aaron Wallace, had already spent years getting his law degree and winning the right to argue for other prisoners in court, forgoing all that ready-made poignancy.)

Some of that nuance is down to Steinberg, who wrote the first three episodes, and to sure-handed direction from George Tillman Jr. and Russell Fine. But a lot of it has to do with casting, beginning with the steady, measured performance of Nicholas Pinnock as Wallace, who’s nine years into a life sentence after being framed for a drug crime.

As good or better in a smaller role is another excellent British performer, Indira Varma, who plays Safiya Masry, the enlightened warden of the prison where Wallace is housed. Masry is Wallace’s ally but his double-pronged strategy, in which he uses the cases of other prisoners as part of a long-term campaign to free himself, often threatens her own position. Without any histrionics or posturing, Varma nails the character’s blend of idealism and realpolitik, compassion and trepidation.

One interesting thing about “For Life,” at this early stage, is how it takes a story grounded in race — Wallace, an African-American, is railroaded by a white district attorney, Glen Maskins (Boris McGiver, whose ability to combine menace and condescension is perfectly used) — and then crosses it up. Wallace’s need to cooperate, and coexist, with representatives of the prison and legal systems puts him in precarious situations, and reveals how loyalties can run deeper along institutional lines than racial ones.

The most interesting thing, though, in both dramatic and thematic terms, is Wallace’s willingness to bend and break the rules to advance his agenda — from his choices of which inmates’ causes to adopt, to lying, to outright fabrication of evidence. Steinberg is similarly calculating: He initially shocks us with how far Wallace, the show’s paragon, is willing to go, before sketching in how a stacked system fuels Wallace’s feelings of desperation and justification.

The viewer is on Wallace’s side, of course, but so far the show doesn’t try to tell us how we should feel about his tactics, and that’s a winning strategy.

Inspired by a real-life story, the new series is a more nuanced than usual take on the legal-prison-mystery-family drama. ]]>