Girl Trouble

A fine docu about "at risk" kids, "Girl Trouble" follows three young San Francisco women on the brink of adulthood -- and a possible lifetime stuck in the revolving door of crime and incarceration -- over four years' course. Juvenile delinquent stereotypes are usefully demolished while the lack of supportive environs and services for such girls becomes painfully clear.

A fine documentary about “at risk” kids, “Girl Trouble” follows three young San Francisco women on the brink of adulthood — and a possible lifetime stuck in the revolving door of crime and incarceration — over four years’ course. Juvenile delinquent stereotypes are usefully demolished while the lack of supportive environs and services for such girls becomes painfully clear. Fast-moving, involving item is a natural for public TV slots and educational outreach.

Protags run an ethnic gamut but have overlapping issues, with arrest histories going back as far as age 13; they’re all 16 to 17 at pic’s start. Sheila is serially busted for selling drugs. Court view of her as incorrigible can’t encompass the uncomfortable truth she’s the only working member of a family on SSI in a violent housing project, with seven siblings, bills to pay, and dad in prison.

Shangra lives on-and-off with an older sister, but despite latter’s advice, refuses to distance herself from a heroin-addict mother whom she frequently joins in homelessness. Stephanie is eager to stay out of the law’s eye, given a standing arrest warrant due to her prior flight from a group home. But this means she’s reluctant to get help when battered by her boyfriend — even after she’s given birth to their baby.

All three girls spend time working and being counseled at the Center for Young Women’s Development, a rare peer-run org targeting female juveniles. Its director, Lateefah, herself just 24, has experienced similar “troubles” first-hand. She bemoans the cycle of domestic violence, premature single motherhood, drug use, support issues, institutional recidivism, et al. that funnels many girls toward the dead-end of adult prison. Stressing that they do have options, the center has had miraculous success turning some young lives around. But it’s an uphill struggle.

There’s no lack of drama, as Sheila is imprisoned for shooting her brother (he’s only wounded) during a drug and alcohol binge, while Shangra and Stephanie deal with much legal and personal turmoil. Rather amazingly, all three stories end on an upbeat note, with each girl in much-improved circumstances — a success rate that’s surely atypical, but inspiring all the same.

Closing titles note that while females comprise about one-third of the juvenile system populace nationwide, so far only 2% of the preventative/supportive services available are targeted toward them.

Vid-shot feature is compactly packaged, with outstanding editing by Josh Peterson and Laurie Schmidt reducing what was no doubt many hours of original footage into a sort of cogent shorthand that’s fleet without feeling rushed.

Girl Trouble

Production: An ITVS presentation of a Critical Images production. Produced by Lidia Szajko, Lexi Leban. Executive producer, Jack Walsh. Directed by Lidia Szajko, Lexi Leban.

Crew: Camera (color, DV), Leban, Szajko; editors, Josh Peterson, Laurie Schmidt; music, Todd Capps; sound, James Olmstead. Reviewed at San Francisco Film Festival, April 24, 2004. Running time: 74 MIN.

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