Over decades of exploitative, predictable TV movies-of-the-week, the phrase "based on a true story" has ceased to carry much weight. The routine simplifications that tie all the threads of a complicated, nuanced life story into a neat 90-minute package tend to make real life sound like homogeneous fiction. The exceptions come when filmmakers dare to tell stories as untidy as reality, though such films are risky—it's hard to find a focus in a story with no clear beginning or end.
First-time director Lori Silverbush and partner Michael Skolnik (who's stepping away from documentaries and from collaborator William O'Neill for the first time) don't manage much focus in their grainy, anguished slice of life On The Outs, but what they lose in momentum, they gain in verisimilitude. While working with actress/educator Paola Mendoza on an arts-outreach program in a New Jersey juvenile-detention center, they gathered stories from the female inmates, who come to life through the criss-crossing stores of three Jersey girls: Judy Marte (Raising Victor Vargas) plays a tough, frequently jailed drug dealer at odds with her junkie mother and judgmental grandmother, but determined to support her mentally challenged brother; newcomer Anny Mariano plays a shy 15-year-old whose unplanned pregnancy leads her into a life she didn't anticipate; and Mendoza herself plays a single-mom crackhead who loses her child to the state and struggles to get her back. All three characters meet in jail, which isn't so much an end as a brief pit stop on a bleak road leading from nowhere to nowhere.
None of these stories really has a beginning. On The Outs takes a great deal about its characters as read, from the history that would lead quiet, unexpressive Mariano to have unprotected sex with an older, none-too-charming drug dealer to the social pressures that keep Marte on the street. The film rarely points out how few options they have, because it assumes viewers already understand. And it never judges their terrible personal choices, because it assumes viewers already sympathize. That limits On The Outs' value as a window into inner-city privation, since it's all too easy to dismiss the characters' troubles as entirely of their own making. But the cast's fearless, evocative performances help a great deal: When Marte howls in cornered anguish, or Mendoza weeps after a visitation with her baby, their honest, raw pain communicates more about the dead-end misery of poverty than a dozen neatly manufactured conclusions ever could.