In The Sentence, director Rudy Valdez wrestles with America’s mandatory sentencing laws, which have glutted prisons and destroyed families while failing to curb drug sales. These laws, a product of the Reagan administration’s war on drugs, limit a judge’s power while imposing a one-size-fits-all form of punishment that can result in an accomplice doing the same ludicrously hard time as a drug dealer. People in the legal industry have a term—“the girlfriend problem”—for an inevitable fallout from these laws, which mandate incarceration for people who fail to report their lovers’ crimes to authorities. In the middle 2000s, Michigan native Cynthia Shank was such a girlfriend, sentenced to a federal prison for 15 years for knowledge of a deceased ex-boyfriend’s drug dealing. Cynthia was arrested years after the crimes in question, after she had married her husband, Adam, and had several daughters, and The Sentence follows Cynthia’s family over the course of a decade as they attempt to win her clemency.
Valdez’s documentary pivots on a bit of twist: The filmmaker is Cynthia’s brother, the uncle of her now largely motherless children. In other words, Valdez has no distance from the material, which works simultaneously in The Sentence‘s favor and, largely, its disfavor. Utilizing home movies, Valdez intimately establishes the gaping violation of Cynthia’s absence from the home she’s left behind, lending human agency to an appalling legal issue. Certain unguarded moments haunt one in the film, such as how Cynthia’s father uses his hand to block his crying from the camera. These gestures offer titanic physical embodiments of the pain wrought by racially motivated injustice. Drug prosecutions disproportionately affect people of color, and the Valdez family is of Mexican-American heritage.
Yet Valdez, who also shot The Sentence, possesses no discipline as a filmmaker. Belonging to the Valdez family himself, he takes it for granted that we will find these people compelling, particularly Cynthia’s daughters, who are allowed to mug for the camera for interminable stretches of time, offering such non-profundities as “It doesn’t feel great when everyone’s sad.” Valdez’s ham-handed milking of his nieces’ cuteness for easy pathos becomes grating, and takes up running time that should’ve been devoted to providing a portrait of the actual ins and outs of mandatory sentencing laws. Valdez interviews lawyers but reduces those scenes to quick soundbites, before returning to yet another home movie of his nieces calling a tearful Cynthia.
Countless moments of major family drama are also left off screen. For instance, Adam’s decision to divorce Cynthia, years after her imprisonment, is presented as an afterthought. Granted, Valdez might not have had access to Adam at this time, but this limitation of presence—ironically perpetuated by Valdez’s closeness to the story—isn’t acknowledged, and as such never interrogated. Bafflingly, Valdez doesn’t even capture the first time that clemency for Cynthia is rejected—a scene that should be integral to the film’s drama. When the family drives hours to visit Cynthia in a prison, the scene is elided because Valdez wants to keep Cynthia out of the film until the third act, for the sake of fostering cheap melodramatic mystery.
The vagueness of Valdez’s methods provokes many questions. For one, how does Adam feel about his inability to wait for his wife’s return, which is heartbreaking but understandable? And though there are allusions in the film to their disappointment with the Obama administration for its complicity in enforcing the draconian drug laws that sent Cynthia to jail, what is this family’s politics or religious identity, and how have these beliefs been altered by Cynthia’s ordeal? Valdez inadvertently condescends to his own family, reducing them to crying, opinion-less ciphers. In The Sentence, the filmmaker attempts to courts a purely emotional response from the audience, but his subject matter morally demands intellectual rigor.