It’s a rare occasion when a contempo feature succeeds in cramming every cliche under the sun into a genre already riddled with stereotypes, but “My Prison Yard” takes the prize for most earnest and least self-aware women-in-prison film of the decade, if not longer. Avoiding even a whiff of post-modernism let alone camp, debut helmer Belen Macias doesn’t so much betray her TV roots as frosts them to a mid-’80s shine, co-scripting this “let’s put on a play behind bars” chestnut that’s sure to do well on the smallscreen but won’t make it out of Spanish-lingo territory.
Opening shows a promise and energy that never develops, as ex-con Isabel (Veronica Echegui) goes from a failed bank robbery to a rousing welcoming reception with her old mates behind bars. New prison guard Mar (Candela Pena) is a former actress who treats her wards like humans, unlike tough-as-old-boots colleague Cristina (Blanca Apilanez).
Naturally, Mar wants to help the inmates put on a show, and of course a simple one-acter leads to a thesping workshop, which in turn leads to their very own theater piece — an original musical, yet — about the hardships of life in prison. Only these residents of the Big House seem to have a very good life in the slammer: They wear their own clothes, have officially sanctioned sex with visiting men in a private room, do drugs, and even have avocados flown in for the token Mexican (Patricia Reyes Spindola).
Throw in tough dykes, a few all-girl brawls, prostitutes with hearts of gold, and, as the real topper, an AIDS diagnosis (without anything as upsetting as a visible sarcoma), and every element of the formula is in place. How is it possible that Macias references Susan Hayward in “I Want to Live!” — it’s Isabel’s favorite performance — and yet fails to mine it for camp value? Even Cleo Moore was more self-aware than anyone in the cast or crew of this ultra-straight drama.
At least at the beginning, Macias appears to be leading to something, but initial racial tensions are dropped, and some nice editing back and forth between rioting jailbirds and gypsy dancers suggests there is talent here in desperate need of guidance. Luckily the bevy of actresses turn in solid perfs, never rising above TV movie material but at least genuinely sympathetic, with Echegui (“My Name Is Juani”) in budding Penelope Cruz mode.
Mid-1980s period details are suggested by occasional big hair and unflattering clothing, but little else. Visuals are slick though unremarkable, tending toward smallscreen flatness despite the widescreen format.