Friday, February 7, 2014

A Reel Review: KIDS FOR CASH

Making documentary films can be a tricky business. The first and foremost task of any doc is, obviously, to tell a story using the facts available, and preferably, without an ax to grind or an agenda to push. In telling that story, you still need to find a beginning, middle, end, a hero, and a villain. Considering the subject matter at hand in KIDS FOR CASH, this is a story which could practically tell itself…but director Robert May had other plans.
KIDS FOR CASH tells the story of two Pennsylvania judges who were accused, and convicted of accepting bribes and kickbacks for the jailing of juveniles for minor crimes.

KIDS FOR CASH begins as a standard doc. Its beginnings are humble as it shows the two judges rise to power thanks to their hard stance on juvenile crime. From there, it becomes clear that director Robert May wasn’t just interested in telling a standard A to B story. The film uses no narration, and instead relies on archival news footage and intimate interviews with the once-incarcerated kids, their families, lawyers, advocates, and the judges themselves. May uncovers the stories behind the story we already we knew, and the intimate interviews are never short of surprises or emotion. For as large as the story is, there are deeply personal stories to be told here which are gripping and heart-wrenching.
Every good story needs a villain, and here is where the two judges come in. Although the film takes no sides, the two judges seem to damn themselves with their own words as neither one shows any remorse for their actions. There is nothing more dangerous or fascinating than a villain who believes they are on the side of the right, and both former judges fit the bill perfectly. Considering the ramifications their actions had on young kids and their families, their defiant nature is enough to make an audience want to leap through the screen.

While director Robert May shows great skill in telling an emotional roller-coaster of a story, his craftsmanship stumbles a little bit. The story of the scandal’s beginnings and eventual uncovering is interspersed with the stories from the victims, and while those personal stories are vital, the film jumps all over the place in the timeline without leaving any placeholders for us to keep track of things; people not familiar with the scandal may be very confused as the film unfolds. But still, May has put together a beautiful looking film with excellent cinematography and a moving soundtrack. And by movie’s end, May manages to reveal a nation-wide problem without ever leaving the backyard of the film. It’s a clever bit of filmmaking as it stays factual without preaching.  
KIDS FOR CASH hits an emotional arc at the back end of the former judges’ trial, as the mother of one of the victims confronts them face-to-face in a near Old West-standoff; it’s a perfect climax which is built-up nicely. By the time the somber finale rolls in, tears will be shed and outrage will be felt…a mark of great storytelling.


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