Befitting a script stitched together from the stories of inmates at a New Jersey juvenile detention center, On the Outs exhibits a narrative laxity that occasionally flirts with formlessness. Such structural slackness, however, is also the means by which Lori Silverbush and Michael Skolnik’s docudrama gets at the disorderly, irrational nature of life on the streets, an existence in which hope is elusive, vice is tantalizingly accessible, and chaos lurks just around the crack dealer-infested corner. With an authentically gritty sense of its grim Jersey City setting—the ramshackle apartments where hoods puff up their chests and play Russian Roulette, the pawn shops where guys sling drugs for extra cash, and the bleakly fluorescent interiors of juvey prisons—Silverbush and Skolnik’s film tracks three young women battling drugs, the law, and their own destructive impulses: Oz (Raising Victor Vargas‘s Judy Marte), a tomboyish dealer with a recovering addict mom and mentally challenged brother; Suzette (Anny Mariano), a teenage girl who finds trouble with wily thug Tyrell (Don Parma); and Marisol (Paola Mendoza), a dope fiend whose habit costs her custody of her young daughter.
Documentarians by trade, the directors use rough DV cinematography and no score to amplify their tale’s sense of lived-in reality, and though their staging can be stilted (such as a third-act scuffle that leads to unexpected tragedy), there’s a hardened emotional honesty that permeates even the most schematic moments. Much of this is due to On the Outs’ hands-off approach to moral judgment—its protagonists’ often-misguided, sometimes reprehensible actions are, for better or worse, simply allowed to speak for themselves. But it’s also, fundamentally, a result of its lead actresses’ performances, which range from precisely tortured (Marte) to mildly histrionic (Mendoza) to overly subdued (Mariano), and yet never strike a fundamentally awkward note; their coarseness is, in the end, part of the film’s honest, rough-around-the-edges fiber. Eliciting both empathy and scorn for these wayward characters—an ambiguous response exemplified by Marisol’s anguished screams for her child upon learning that the kid is headed for foster care—Silverbush and Skolnick’s fictional debut disappointingly ends on something of a stale, anticlimactic note. But if its vérité drama periodically veers into triteness, On the Outs nonetheless turns out to be that rare film that does justice to its based-on-real-events roots.