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.