SXSW Review: Inside America

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Inside America

The so-called American Dream is little more than a fantasy for many Americans. We're told to pursue an ideal life of finding a good job, owning a home, and living in a happy, stable family situation. But for much of America, this life isn't reality and never will be.

The impossible disconnect between the increasingly mythological American Dream and life's harsh realities is the underlying theme of Inside America, an unfiltered and unflinching look at the lives of six high school students in Brownsville, Texas. A narrative film with the look and feel of a documentary, Inside America (which had its US premiere at SXSW on March 14 at the ACC Vimeo Theater) is jarringly, agonizingly realistic.

Curiously, while Inside America was filmed in Brownsville, it's actually an Austrian movie. Austrian director and writer Barbara Eder spent a year as an exchange student in Brownsville in 1994; her experiences during that time gave her the idea for the movie. She and producer Constanze Schumann spent three weeks in Brownsville in 2006 hanging out with students and gathering material for the script. They returned in 2007 and managed to shoot a terrific movie with a crew of only five people, a miniscule budget (all the actors are volunteers), and limited access to the film's main set, Brownsville's Hanna High School.

Inside America is almost entirely character driven, with a minimal story arc. And what fascinating characters they are. Like everything else in the film, the six main characters are blends of fiction and reality. They're all uncannily realistic figures, and some parts of their back stories (including some of their names) are based on the real lives of the student actors who play them.

The characters are Aimee (Aimeé Lizette Saldivar), a wealthy, vain, drug addicted cheerleader; gang member Manni (Raul Juarez), who's desperately trying to straighten out his life; Carlos (Carlos Benavides), a blindly patriotic and entirely hypocritical ROTC student; quiet loner Ricky (Luis De Los Santos), who flirts with drug use and gang membership; Zuly (Zuleyma Jaime), a foster kid who is aging out of the foster care system with no place to go; and Patty (Patty Barrera), whose very traditional family wants her to find a stable man to marry, so she can start having babies.

Most of the six barely know each other and seldom venture outside their cliques, but they have more in common than they realize. Their main commonality is that their home lives are a mess, thanks to nonexistent, clueless, or horrendously bad parents. The worst among them is Aimee's mother, Carol (Carolyn Sanchez), a shallow, self-absorbed, manipulative monster who compensates for her own lack of self esteem via conspicuous consumption and forcing Aimee to compete in beauty contests. (And of course, losing is not an option. It's little wonder cocaine and booze are Aimee's best friends.) Manni's parents are Carol's opposites; they're mostly AWOL. Although Carlos's parents are unseen, his bigoted, law-and-order worldview obviously stems from a very rigid home life.

Ricky's parents are unseen also, but it's a sure bet that if he's seeking friendship from gang members, something's terribly wrong at home. Zuly's foster parents are well meaning but often oblivious and distant; they're unconcerned about her fate when she turns 18 and is forced to move out. Patty may be better off than any of the others. Her completely old-school family -- ruled by a riotously funny pair of devoutly Catholic grandmothers -- may pester her to stop wearing t-shirts, be more ladylike and find a nice young man. But at least they care and are trying to help her.

Again, the plot is minimal, but Inside America is plenty captivating as we follow the students' daily lives. Although not all of them are poor, they all live in a dismal, disaffected world of drug and alcohol abuse, petty crime, violence and death. Compounding the nightmare is rampant bigotry toward Latinos.

As bad as the kids' home lives are, they find little refuge at school. Hanna High School -- itself a major character in the film -- is less like a school than a minimum security prison. The student's backpacks and purses are searched every time they enter the building, police roam the halls with drug-sniffing dogs, and random classroom drug searches happen daily. These are not the high school days many of us fondly remember.

In the midst of this police state-like atmosphere, the teachers try to maintain some semblance of a normal educational experience, with mixed success. They coach barely literate students with their reading, encourage kids to raise funds for choir trips and attempt to teach parenting skills by having the students act as surrogate parents of raw eggs. And every morning, the kids recite the Pledge of Allegiance to a nation that cares little about them and offers them almost no chance to escape.

Inside America captures all of this dystopian malaise with startling intimacy and relentless, howling anger. Eder's brilliant script disappears entirely into the film's gritty cinéma vérité sensibilities. Again, everything feels all too real; aside from a few elements that obviously aren't real (such as rampant drug use and a ghastly, bloody fight), if you didn't know the dialogue is scripted and the action staged, you'd swear Inside America is purely a documentary.

The actors -- all of whom are nonprofessionals in their debut roles -- are every bit as brilliant as the script. Like the rest of Inside America, the acting is fiercely realistic. The six principals are all standouts, giving wholly natural and amazingly nuanced performances that any seasoned professional would do well to emulate.

Fearless, frightening and stunningly well executed, Inside America should serve as a wake-up call to a nation that would rather turn a blind eye to the horrible worlds in which so many kids live. I hope it finds wide US distribution, for it is a film all of America needs to see.

Inside America is screening again at SXSW on Saturday, March 19 at 5 pm at Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar.