AFI Fest 2020: Jacinta, by David Bax
Jessica Earnshaw’s Jacinta doesn’t come with the Kartemquin imprimatur but it produces great rewards by adhering to the Steve James methodology of years-long dedication. Starting with its namesake subject nearing the end of a ten month prison term and following her for roughly five years, Jacinta patiently teases out an unforgettable story, while also illustrating the physical effects of a cycle of addiction and recovery in a way that a narrower window of time couldn’t.
What we see of Jacinta’s days in the Maine Correctional Center at the film’s beginning (with Earnshaw afforded an impressive amount of access) are not her first time in prison. We don’t get the full details of her past but we know that, ten years prior, she handed her very young daughter off to the girl’s paternal grandmother with a plan to reenter the child’s life after getting her own together and since then–despite being present for a few sober months at a time–she has not returned to the full time motherhood that is her ultimate goal.
It’s Jacinta’s addiction that keeps her away from her daughter. Earnshaw, wisely, does not attempt to explain what addiction is. Instead, she shows us who Jacinta is and allows us to feel the same tug of war between sympathy and frustration that, say, her father does. Not everyone in Jacinta’s family is the steadiest presence; some of them have addiction issues of their own or remain incarcerated. That’s why it so heartbreaking that one of the most sturdy voices of reason is her bright tween daughter, forced by her circumstances to mature before her time. Earnshaw is not immune, either, to the growing connection we feel toward Jacinta, at one point abandoning any pointless dictate of documentarian distance to drive her subject home when she’s too high. We also see how Jacinta’s community attempts to support her despite her own repeated lapses. The cop who’s arresting her takes time to give her dad advice about bail over the phone; a judge encourages her to take more time before deciding how she wants to plea. The community in which these events take place is a white one so there’s no opportunity to juxtapose this behavior but, still, Jacinta asks by omission the question of how its subject would be treated by the justice system were she not a white woman.
Earnshaw is not interested in going out of the way to make points about what we’re seeing and what it means, anyway. Sure, there’s a story–both a personal one and a societal one–taking shape here but Jacinta doesn’t focus on narrative building blocks. Instead, the film is mostly made up of moments. Some of them are big, like the aforementioned arrest and arraignment, but many of them are small, revealing family moments. A sequence in which Jacinta’s brother helps her re-pierce her closed-up ear after her release from prison is as raw and visceral as it is warm, funny and familial.
If Jacinta is overtly about any one topic, in fact, that topic is family, not addiction. Jacinta’s mother, Rosemary, is a constant presence, sometimes physically and sometimes (like when she is locked up herself) psychologically. Jacinta loves Rosemary but recognizes her failures as a mother, just as we eventually hear Rosemary’s straightforward testimonial about her own traumatic childhood. By most measures our culture values, Jacinta is not a very good mom. But there’s hope in the idea that we can improve with each generation and that Jacinta and everyone else in the world are worthy of our time, love and care.