Nine-time Emmy winner Jon Alpert returns to the urban jungle of Newark, N.J., to follow a pair of petty criminals, each fresh out of prison and hungry for heroin, cocaine and companionship, as they stagger through the tough reality of employment, responsibility and sobriety. Alpert’s cinema verite take, culled from 200 hours of film and five years in the lives of two ex-cons, Rob and Freddie, and junkie Deliris, mother of Rob’s children who winds up with Freddie, limns one cruel and unforgiving world. This is the vicious circle of life.
Alpert has created a spectacular extension of “Scared Straight”; fear of prison, for these characters at least, barely supersedes the fear of not being behind bars. The trio allows Alpert into every dark crevice of their lives — the shooting up, the stealing, tampering with urine samples, Deliris prostituting herself and leaving her young children unattended — and he compiles it in such a convincing manner that just about any viewer will shudder at the horror of these downward-spiraling lives.
Rob gives the appearance of wanting to do right — get a job, find a home, stay straight and be a father. He actually finds a job guarding a used car lot, and with it a place to stay. His ability to stay away from the drugs, if not the dealers, actually finds him quite perky and content with himself.
Deliris, a morally bankrupt character, adds co-dependency to her lengthy list of faults and gets Rob on a path doomed for failure. After he loses his job, Rob basically gives up on the ideals he left jail with and begins descending, Deliris there for the ride. Alpert’s camera sets him up as the potential hero; doc is at its most riveting chronicling his enormous fall.
Freddie, introduced with a tour of the jail’s friendly confines, is a lost cause from the start. Freedom represents two things: females and drugs. His life is immediately grizzly and he gets on the fast track for trouble. While driving under the influence in an unregistered car with no driver’s license, he runs a red and Alpert asks, quite rightly, why? Sex will be delivered at his destination, he says, his language far less clinical.
Deliris winds up fighting for her children and fighting, a little bit harder, to keep cocaine in her veins and heroin up her nose. A tragic figure from the get-go — even her mother has no use for her — she bounces from a decisive Rob to the ambivalent Freddie, the inevitable decline is as obvious as a TV movie of the week.
Beyond the characters, the Newark streets and their inhabitants are shown in unforgiving glory — a city without hope.
Everybody gives up in this world, leaving the twinkle of promise for the future to Deliris’ 9-year-old daughter, a little girl forced to fend for herself as she attempts to cram adult logic into her mother’s head. Alpert shades each character free of pity except that little girl and, without pushing any buttons, gets every emotional tug to go in the right direction.