Review by Sean Boelman
The feature debut of photographer Jessica Earnshaw, Jacinta is a new documentary exploring the U.S. prison system. Winner of the Best New Documentary Director award via virtual judging at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival, this film definitely shows Earnshaw is a talent to watch, but is weighed down by the potential ethical implications associated with its existence.
The movie follows a single mother and drug addict as she is released from prison and struggles to get back up on her feet, recover, and make a life for herself and her daughter. This is a real-life redemption arc, and those stories are among the most compelling that can be committed to film because people like to see the good that can come out of humanity.
But in this particular case, the movie is hindered by the fact that the filmmaker’s observation of the subject is ethically challenging. Earnshaw takes a verité approach to the story, and that involves a policy of non-interference. However, at many points within the story, interference very well could have prevented dangerous things that should not have happened.
Furthermore, many argue that the mere act of observation can change a way in which a person behaves. Having one’s life and recovery process scrutinized by the camera, and knowing that it may make its way to audiences worldwide undeniably puts a lot of pressure on a person. It is entirely possible that this added pressure had a tangible effect on the progression of the story.
Jacinta is an undeniably compelling subject. Although she does a lot of things that aren’t particularly likable, it’s hard not to feel bad for her. She’s a person who has made mistakes, but she knows the error of her ways and wants to improve herself. Her story, however frustrating it may be at times, is very sympathetic.
One of the more interesting things about the film is that it addresses the very important topic of recidivism. The threat of going back to jail is looming over Jacinta’s story, and this serves as one of her key motivators. It would have been nice had the movie explored the consequences of this issue in more depth, but given the hands-off approach, it can serve as a solid conversation-starter nevertheless.
On a technical level, the film certainly benefits from Earnshaw’s origins as a photographer. In addition to being director, she is the cinematographer on her movie, and it looks absolutely gorgeous. Even though the film is dealing with some of the lower aspects of society, it manages to feel hopeful thanks to Earnshaw’s excellent visuals.
Jacinta tells an interesting and urgent story, but its verité approach may not have been the most ethical, and that can be significantly distracting. Nevertheless, Earnshaw is certainly a very talented filmmaker and it will be exciting to see what she does next.
Jacinta was set to debut at the cancelled 2020 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.