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  • Hooman Razavi

Jacinta: She Is My Mom, But She Is A Problem… | 2020 Tribeca Film Festival

By: Hooman Razavi

“Two damaged people trying to heal each other, is love”- “I really want to get high right now…”. The themes and topics that some documentarian may choose, and films they make, may better be shown cinematically in horror or thriller genres to make the events, a fictional account of reality. Jacinta and its director Jessica Earnshaw do the opposite and show the true but sad story of Jacinta who suffers from drug addiction and ongoing family issues raw and uncut. The power of storytelling and image are confirmed when Jacinta won this year’s Best New Documentary Director award at Tribeca Film Festival. The documentary, the first feature film of the director may have traumatizing effects on the viewers, but it leaves us with new questions on the meaning of love, family and community.

Jacinta, the main protagonist of the film is shown to be locked up in state prison in the state of Maine along with Rosemary, her mother. Once her sentence is over, she is back with her family, while her mother is still locked up. The journey that she goes through after that depicts her challenges in life outside prison, struggles to reconnect with her daughter Caylynn who has not seen her mother for years and personal odyssey to stay off drug habits and be normal towards her father, brothers, boyfriend and Rosemary. Jacinta gives up, stand back up and go back to prison again, but deep inside she knows she must eventually make dramatic changes somehow.


Jacinta, the main character whose 27th year of life is under radar, though under a lot of stress from all fronts acts so flawlessly in front of the camera; to the extent that viewers may feel she was auditioned and selected for the role. This aspect reaches its dramatic peak at scenes that she visits and stays with Caylynn, the motherly affections are so genuine and touching that the dark side of the story could be forgotten for a few minutes. Jacinta is not shy in front of the camera, though she admits the she never thought the story of her recovery/life after first prison release unfolds in that fashion. Once she is back to the city, the temptations to do drugs and old habits are back again in her mind. In the dialogues, interviews and voice-overs, it is evident to the viewer that motherhood and consequence of not being a good mother is in front of her mind. Paradoxically, as much as she is conflicted about being a mother, her role as Rosemary’s daughter is ambiguous too and the normal boundaries are clearly not there. In scenes that she goes through detox in Lucky’s house (Her boyfriend), one may wonder if she is really going through the pain or if the director and film crew have given her any instruction to act that way, the scenes are superbly shot, though disturbing to watch. In other similar hard scenes, she does the drugs in front of the camera and once again we are witnessing her descent into old Jacinta, but the scenes as much distressing but so original and verité. In brief, in one scene she comments “My best friend is prison”, though ironically one can say that she had bonded and befriended with the camera more.

Film Analysis & Interpretation

The analysis of the film can take many levels that can testify to the reasons for Jacinta’s award. The opening scenes provide excellent background and entry points to the story. As viewers, we can see from the outset the old footages that hints a history, potentially a troubled one. The scenes followed are taken in the prison and the chemistry between Jacinta and Rosemary is depicted strong enough to her release date. The cinematography and framing are well-conducive to the storytelling. Interestingly, the director is a well-known photographer and her project “Aging in American Prisons” won the photography award in 2016. Because of this background, she had unrestricted access to Maine state prisons and as such she knows the prison space quite well for framing the story and its atmosphere. In one early scene, this mastery can be viewed when the camera set still, shoot a scene from window’s perspective that foreground barbed wires. In this scene which neither Rosemary, nor Jacinta are present, the suffocation and lack of genuine relationship of the two is depicted using the mise-en-scene, shot angle and color composition. This repeated use of window as a visual cue in the film hints at the distance among the family members and characters and potentially the indirect access to the lives of Jacinta and her troubled life by outsiders including the film audience.

Another aspect in the analysis of form is shots in the car when Jacinta is driving, or someone drives her around the town. In those, the camera is placed inside the car, to the extent that one feels the characters are oblivious towards it. For example, in a few scenes in the car, Caylynn narrates stories that one may wonder if this was scripted and practiced many times. One exception to this rule is when Jacinta wants to get high and ask the camera to be turned off- it is an anti-cathartic moment for the viewer, but Jacinta had the upper hand. The scenes in the road and aerial shots can potentially shows the arduous journey of Jacinta’s life, going form one neighborhood and drug dealer to another, taken from one prison to another and a family in move for her and other love ones in either court or prison. Moreover, the camera and dialogues dissect other aspects of the city of Lewiston which the story takes place, the moral corruption, drug culture and background behind Jacinta, Rosemary and other town’s attractions and entanglements to drugs.

The main theme of the film is another key point of discussion and dissection. As discussed above, right from the start, the film madidates on the question of motherhood? It can make every viewer, and not just mothers to ask, who is a good mother? Can you still love your children and be a bad mother? Is it ok to live a separate life from your children and be a good mother? Jacinta and Rosemary, the main two anti-heroines of the film, in many scenes, are confronted with these questions. Interestingly, as the story unfolds, more is revealed behind why they both have spent significant amount of time in prison and why Jacinta keeps relapsing so quickly. Nevertheless, the documentary is hard to watch in this perspective, as it undermines the standard notion of motherhood, as loving and caring bonding that can never be questioned. In Caylynn’s words “She is both selfless and Selfshish.” Motherhood has nuances and maybe pure love is not the only ingredient. As equally thought-provoking, one can think about the role of male characters in the film. As much as they seem minor and irrelevant but both Lucky, Eric and Shaun are big fabric of Jacinta’s life and as much affected by upheavals in Jacinta’s life as Rosemary and Caylynn. This may undermine the purely motherhood narrative of the film and highlights the fact the family must be seen in its totality and not selectively based on prior biases. In sum, realistic acting, minimalist music, great narration, film shooting, and editing all have made the film easily accessible for viewers despite its challenging themes.

Review & Final Thoughts

As Jessica Earnshaw commented after getting the news of winning Tribeca’s award “I’ve always felt that loving your subjects is one of the most important things.”. This statement makes sense when viewers watch Jacinta and can sympathize with Jacinta, flaws in her character and how the director portrayed her rather challenging, though hopeful journey. This effect which is done through the power of making rough but cut to the chase film may inspire future generations of documentarian to choose themes and stories that could be taboo, earth-shattering or difficult-to-make. The good news is that the precedent is already being made with Jacinta.

Grade: A


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