Friday, February 25, 2011

Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story

Sixteen year-old Cyntoia Brown killed a man. The term “troubled youth” does not adequately describe her tragic life experiences. In many ways her own worst enemy, Brown finds several passionate advocates as she stands trial, including filmmaker Daniel Birman, who unambiguously sides with his subject in Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story (promo here), which airs on most PBS outlets this Tuesday as part of the current season of Independent Lens.

Both in terms of nature and nurture, Brown was dealt a tough hand. The history of her substance-abusing birth mother’s family is rife with mental illness and suicide. In and out of foster homes during her formative years, Brown endured physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Not surprisingly, it left lasting scars on her psyche, which her defense team’s psychiatrist argues directly contributed to her crime. Picked up by a gun nut for illicit sex, it sounds like Brown over-reacted to his squirrely behavior by shooting him (while he was sleeping) with one of his own firearms. It is hard to fully judge the events in question though, because Birman never allots adequate time to hear the prosecution lay out their side of the case. Indeed, this oversight makes several key turning points seem inexplicably unfair and random.

Granted remarkable access by the Tennessee criminal justice system, Birman captures a number of legitimately dramatic moments throughout Brown’s trial. Though defense witness Dr. William Bernet might not be the showiest character, it is particularly fascinating to watch him draw out Cyntoia (and his lack of grandstanding is certainly refreshing). While Brown might be a hard kid to love, it is even more difficult not to sympathize for her, considering the pain and exploitation she survived. Yet, there is a consistent sense all through Facing (at least in the broadcast cut) that only part of the story is being presented. You can just feel the void.

The message of Facing is hard to miss. Regardless of the relative justness of her verdict, one cannot help but share Birman’s compassion for the still young Brown. Ironically though, the lack of substantive prosecutorial voices or testimony from the victim’s family somewhat hampers the film’s efficacy, becoming conspicuous by their absence. Heartbreaking, but also more than bit manipulative, Independent Lens’ Facing airs this coming Tuesday (3/1) in most PBS markets.