The problem with having kids in today’s world is that they grow into teenagers. And while hormonally surging, hyperactive adolescents are tough enough to handle even in good, solid family settings, throw some poverty, ignorance, drug abuse and broken homes into the mix, and kids don’t have much of a prayer. Various combinations of these handicaps apply to the two subjects in director Liz Garbus’ by turns chilling, depressing, yet guardedly optimistic documentary, “Girlhood.”
Shanae was only twelve years old when she stabbed a schoolmate to death. As the film begins, she seems appallingly oblivious to her crime and it’s resulting loss of life; meeting any criticism with attitude and blaming everyone but herself for her situation. As for Megan, everything’s a big joke. Following her conviction for assault with a deadly weapon at the age of fourteen, the hyperactive, rebellious troublemaker seems hell-bent on following her mother’s path of drug abuse and prostitution. In and out of nearly a dozen foster homes, Megan swears she’s going to mother her mom, even though she’s clearly barely able to take care of herself.
Garbus follows these two troubled teens through some three years of their incarceration at Waxter Juvenile Facility near Baltimore. In the process, she captures two startling transformations. We watch, irritated at first but warming gradually as Shanae evolves from an irresponsible, immature, unapologetic brat into a lovely young woman, despite an additional unexpected tragedy along the way. Similarly, if far more subtly, Megan comes of age on her own street-smart terms, facing a far more tenuous and hardscrabble, if still hopeful future.
It takes a determined effort to stick with “Girlhood.” Its subjects are so unsympathetic at first and the film’s bland, harsh, no-nonsense videography is rough on the eyes. The reward for sticking with it, however, is worth it as viewers catch two all-too-rare glimpses of the juvenile reform system actually working for a change, if only in spite of itself.
Shanae and Megan’s troubled trips through girlhood are as rugged as they come. Revealed as they are in the rewarding documentary “Girlhood,” these voyages prove there are different ways of putting lives back together, even when facing the harshest of odds.