This is a difficult documentary to watch, let alone review. Focusing on Tia and Tiahna, a lesbian couple in the skid row neighborhood of Los Angeles, Game Girls tells the story of their daily struggles. Trying to make money, trying to get the mental health services they need, and just trying to survive.
Told without narration, this documentary forces you to experience their lives as they do. Devoid of context, you are with them as they struggle through their lives. Instead of being told who these people are and how you should feel about them, you live with them and learn about them. And while it is a nice change of pace from other documentaries, Game Girls does at times feel like poverty porn.
When we first meet Tia, she is walking down the middle of the street drunk, desperate to pick a fight with anyone. Even the filmmaker. Especially the filmmaker. She is cursing, she is yelling, she is a nonsensical mess stumbling along to an uncertain destination and future.
“She is cursing, she is yelling, she is a nonsensical mess stumbling along to an uncertain destination and future…”
When we first meet Tiahna, she is being released from prison, and Tia (now sober) is there to pick her up. We are never told why she was there, and the filmmakers seem to suggest that some time in prison is just part of their everyday lives. They are clearly happy to see each other, and it is here we learn that they are romantically involved. And that is as good as their lives ever get.
With an unflinching gaze director, Alina Skryzeszewska follows the pair and, to a lesser extent, explores the world of Skid Row. But, unsurprisingly, this isn’t Alina’s world. It feels, at times, as though she is more interested in showing us how pathetic their lives are than she is in letting us get to know them as people. So, at times, her outsider’s gaze feels exploitive.
There is a scene in which the filmmaker is attacked by a drunk man. Tia leaps to her aid and chases the man off. The, later in the documentary, Tia and Tiahna have a brutal physical fight. They spent half the documentary screaming at each other, but this is knock-down draw-blood kind of fight. So the filmmaker of Game Girls is willing to take the protection of one of her subjects, and also willing to document the potential murder of her subjects.
“They spent half the documentary screaming at each other, but this is knock-down draw-blood kind of fight…”
What makes it all the more depressing is researching the origins of Game Girls. On her Indigogo page, Alina talks about the years of workshops she held in Skid Row to collect the rich and varied stories of the women who struggled and survived that she wanted them to tell their own stories to a broader world. But, that’s not what we got. What we got was Tia and Tiahana laughing, loving, and occasionally trying to kill each other.
Now I understand that a project can grow and change over time. But, the danger of focusing on and fetishizing a single story is that the audience is encouraged to extrapolate that this is the experience for everyone in Skid Row. It will be seen by a (mostly) privileged audience who will get a chance to live vicariously through them, but also have their unconscious biases reinforced and even amplified.
There is a lot that Game Girls forces the viewer to grapple with. The lack of accessible health care, income inequality, race relations, lack of opportunity for self-improvement in the inner cities, and the line between exploration and exploitation.
Game Girls (2019) Directed by Alina Skryzeszewska.
4 out of 10