The Reagan administration’s War on Drugs had many effects, almost none of them including an actual reduction of illegal drug use or trade. One of the most destructive was the impact of mandatory minimum sentences designed to discourage drug dealing, but which instead mostly served to crowd the penal system with nonviolent offenders whose long terms often seemed inappropriate to their crimes. This frequently had the effect of breaking up families over one youthful “mistake” that in a prior era would’ve met with a far less severe punishment, allowing perps to straighten up, fly right and otherwise get on with their still-young lives.
“The Sentence” provides a good illustration of the consequences of these policies. Filmmaker Rudy Valdez documents the struggles of his immediate family during a sister’s lengthy incarceration for “conspiracy”: She was found guilty not of actual drug dealing, but of knowing about her late ex-boyfriend’s deeds in that realm. She got a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years for failing to prevent someone else’s crimes, leaving her three young daughters motherless for their entire childhoods.
It’s a dramatic portrait of institutionalized injustice, though the film is too narrowly focused to plead its case with maximum effectiveness. Valdez provides moving but eventually repetitive footage of his family members tearfully dealing with this forced separation, and affords the viewer little needed context on the surrounding legal issues — or how his sister came to be crushed in its gears. The subject is inherently engrossing, but a better documentary could (and probably will) be made about it. Nonetheless, this Sundance Audience Award winner has continued its festival-circuit travel en route to an Oscar-qualifying limited theatrical run starting Oct. 12, with an HBO broadcast bow three days later.
Starting with 2008 footage of Michigander Adam Shank prepping his three offspring for a dance recital — while mom tries to participate via phone from federal prison — the film chronicles a decade-plus family saga. The woman at the wrong end of the line is the filmmaker’s older sister Cynthia, who got involved with a beau she says wasn’t dealing drugs when they first met. That changed once they began living together, though Valdez leaves blank any details about the precise crimes, to what extent Cindy was aware or involved, or even how or why her unnamed ex eventually was murdered.
Charged with conspiracy, she refused a plea bargain that would have sent her to prison for 13 years, believing she wouldn’t be convicted since she hadn’t actually sold drugs herself. Indeed, both the state and federal cases against her were dismissed. Yet some years later, after Cindy married Shank — restarting her adult life with an upstanding husband, a mortgage and three children — she was re-arrested on the same charges and this time handed the 15-year sentence. Her circumstance is known as “the girlfriend problem” among activists, legal experts and others who’ve long objected to laws that imprison citizens simply for knowledge of a partner or family member’s misdeeds.
“The Sentence” expends very little effort articulating the history or details of such laws, let alone why — despite their apparent unpopularity on both sides of the political aisle — there’s been so little effective action to repeal them. We get brief input from three legal and drug-policy authorities, but Valdez doesn’t seem interested in providing the bigger picture.
Instead, he spends nearly all of the film’s running time on home movies of the family members dealing with Cindy’s absence, some shot ostensibly so that she can see her daughters growing up in absentia. This is poignant, but it soon enough loses potency, as none of the participants is particularly articulate or forthcoming, and the kids sometimes seem to be performing for the camera.
Leaving so much out — such as letting us know us that Shank has decided to divorce Cindy so that his children “have some kind of mother in their life,” then failing to note whether he actually remarries — seems intended to heighten the victimization scenario. Yet it ends up making the protagonists less complex and interesting, and renders the ending, staged as a Christmas surprise, less impactful.
The story itself is powerful and representative, with eye-opening details like the seemingly arbitrary bureaucratic choice to move Cindy from an Illinois facility to one in Florida — instantly reducing family members’ ability to visit her from every few weeks to once or twice a year. Yet the documentary could have been far more effective. It’s not always easy to forgive the director’s sacrifice of a more informative overview of the subject in light of his emotional involvement in the material. And his “intimate” personal drama seems to deliberately leave many of the family dynamics in that drama obscured: There are other Valdez siblings mysteriously absent here, and it’s unclear whether the grandparents are divorced — all things that should’ve been included not for gossipy value, but because they’d obviously impact children already suffering from mom’s incarceration.
As a first feature (Valdez has been a camera operator and DP on several prior projects) the film’s somewhat rough assembly edges can be forgiven. It requires a little more forbearance, however, to overlook the similarly earnest but clumsy contribution of producer-composer Sam Bisbee’s final-credits song.