As The Return’s opening text tells us, in 2012, California amended its three-strikes law, one of the harshest criminal sentencing policies in the country, with Proposition 36, which is the first time in U.S. history that citizens voted to shorten the sentences of those presently incarcerated. That’s potentially revolutionary news, particularly for people who inarguably insist that this country is built on a racial caste system that’s insidiously regulated by the prison system, which is more expensive and civically damaging to maintain than the social services that so reliably rile conservatives.
Of course, reform isn’t as easy as merely voting for it. One of the maddening hypocrisies of our country’s attitude toward ex-cons is that we expect them to reform while using their pasts as excuses not to hire them or rent to them—actions necessary for empowering these men and women to abandon the lives that landed them in prison in the first place. In The Return, Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway seize on promising material for a documentary, following Bilal Chatman and Kenneth Anderson, two convicts released as a result of Proposition 36, as they attempt to adjust to life out of prison.
Chatman and Anderson’s stories both illustrate the injustices of the three-strikes law, which was theoretically designed to keep violent criminals in prison, but enabled the decades-long incarceration of people for minor offenses. The filmmakers offer scenes that liken a convict’s release from jail to the experience of a soldier returning from war—a correlation that someone directly voices at one point in the film. Anderson is the most poignant subject, a big bear of a man who served 14 years for a non-violent drug offense, who greets his family outside of prison with tears he tries and fails to hide. Anderson is often on the verge of tears throughout, as his grown family, including his ex-wife, have come to embody the life that he’s missed and is unsure as to whether or not he can reclaim.
There’s a beautiful moment when Anderson repairs a ceiling, his voiceover describing the intensity of prison life; the scene’s elements—the visual of the ceiling and the hauntingly soft sound of Anderson’s voice—collectively forge a metaphor in which the ceiling symbolizes his damaged psyche. But there aren’t enough moments like this in The Return, which is weighed down by its preaching of the injustices and hypocrisies associated with prison sentencing.
The sentiments are sound, but they aren’t allowed to dramatically breathe, and the filmmakers suspiciously leave Anderson’s subsequent struggles—his firing from his job, his possible relapse into drug use, his moving out of his family’s house into a reentry home—almost entirely off screen. (Chatman, meanwhile, is often forgotten throughout, until his success is necessary for a happy ending.) One senses that de la Vega and Galloway are afraid to include footage that might challenge their obvious sympathies for Proposition 36, and this tentativeness cheapens urgent subject matter with sentimentality.
The Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 13—24.