Much has been written regarding the dire state of the American criminal justice system, and there’s never a shortage of stories that attempt to shed light on the problem. Independent filmmakers regularly churn out oft-uninspired riffs on the horror and sci-fi genres, but rarely do we see films like Penitentia. Writer/director Chris Lawing has crafted a grounded tale of a young attorney caught between his lofty career aspirations and exposing malfeasance in the Kansas Department of Corrections. Legal dramas are largely a hit-or-miss affair, but the filmmaker wisely keeps the focus on the characters and not the courtroom. If there’s anything we don’t need, it’s another film with extended sequences of lawyers yelling in a courtroom.
Alejandro “Ale” Villacano (Glenn Stanton) is a young and promising attorney with a background unlike almost any other. He spent years locked away as a convicted felon, only to succeed in ultimately getting acquitted. While he readily attempts to keep his past under lock and key, it proved formative for his understanding of the legal system in Kansas. His former life is in the past, or so he thought. Alejandro’s cellmate happens upon Ale as he leaves a fancy restaurant with his girlfriend Beth (Kate Flanagan). Begging for help in freeing his sister from abuse in the local penitentiary, JD (Rob Wilson) enlists the reluctant lawyer for help. With the help of his mentor and moral compass, Marvin (Michael W. Schwartz), Ale uncovers an environment of pervasive abuse and corruption.
“…Ale uncovers an environment of pervasive abuse…”
The larger story doesn’t scream originality, but the execution is on point. Best of all, Penitentia serves as a promising introduction to Stanton and his potential as a performer. He’s in almost every scene and manages to carry the entire film on his shoulders. With the right material and further development of his chops, Stanton is in line to become a well-known star. The supporting cast also more than holds their own in this modest production. Admittedly, at times, Lawing introduces too many characters that don’t add much purpose to the overall plot. There are about two to three characters who could probably be excised without detriment to the cumulative experience.
Perhaps most noteworthy of all is that this drama doesn’t feel like an indie film or junior production. It’s generally superior to what similar ilk one would find on basic television, and that’s a sign of polish and maturity on the director’s part. The pacing drags a bit towards the latter third, but that’s bound to happen when so many narrative threads are in the process of being tied together.
Pentitentia is a refreshing change of pace from the dollar-store vampires and stiff performances we frankly get too often from indie filmmakers. It’s great to see the tackling of serious issues in America and not just pure escapism. At the very least, one will gain a newfound appreciation for what goes on behind the scenes in our criminal justice system.
"…a refreshing change of pace..."