By Vadim Rizov
“Sweethearts Of The Prison Rodeo” is precisely the kind of documentary SXSW must stop showing. In the dark, pre-mumblecore days, when the festival’s mission was pretty amorphous, SXSW premiered “Spellbound.” Maybe the most financially successful film ever to launch at SXSW, it came with a dark price: any number of soul-sucking, would-be uplifting documentaries in the “quirky,” “humanist” vein. These pre-fab triumphs of the human spirit find hope and humor in the unlikeliest places, hitting the same tedious narrative beats as the Hollywood narratives they’re theoretically the alternative to, showing that the expected emotions of everyday human life soldier on pretty much everywhere. This is surprising, I guess.
Now: I wouldn’t want to suggest Bradley Beesley is a cynical director or operates in bad faith, because I’ve seen some of his other work and it doesn’t suggest anything of the kind. (Nor am I crazy about slagging on the premieres of small documentaries, but Beesley, if not Morgan Spurlock, has established himself just enough that I think one negative review isn’t going to completely screw things up.) There’s something pleasing about his unlikely desire to document every facet of Oklahoma life; David Gordon Green brought South Carolina to the world, and it would be nice if every state has its champion. Beesley began with 2001’s “Okie Noodling,” which examined the culture of catching catfish with bare hands, and continued with 2005’s “The Fearless Freaks,” a surprisingly candid and absorbing biography of Oklahoma City’s favorite musical sons, The Flaming Lips. That didn’t have any real structure and lagged, but it had amazingly candid, revelatory footage of Steven Drodz shooting up heroin, going a long way to explain why the Lips’ optimism was a hard-earned reaction to hard times, not the fun-but-unvaryhing be-in they’ve kind of become. So fine, OK: here’s Oklahoma trilogy, part three.
“Sweethearts of the Prison Radio” (the title a too-cute Byrds homage) focuses on the prisoners of McAlester, Oklahoma. Darkly mirroring border neighbor Texas (which leads the nation in executions), Oklahoma leads America in incarceration; recidivism rates, unsurprisingly, remain high. It’s also home to one of only two prison rodeos in the world, where inmates compete annually in bizarre and deadly bull-centric competitions. Women were allowed into the competition in 2006, and that’s presumably all it took to get Beesley going. Who needs to probe when you have women with nicknames like Foxie trying to snatch cash off a bull’s horns?
“Sweethearts” is baseline competent in a way more dispiriting than true failure. When you see low-grade video and hear inaudible sound, you know to walk out: when it looks like someone knows what they’re doing, it takes a little longer to figure out they’re not actually doing anything at all. Beesley’s got the “characters”: women mostly in on drug trafficking charges (Oklahoma’s been hit hard by meth), and good-ol’-boy wardens and supervisors out of another era. He’s got one man and woman for pathos: the woman ran away from her family at 12 and tracks them down with a private detective. Their reunion is predictably tearjerking, but there’s nothing in it you couldn’t predict; watching it made me feel kind of dirty, leaching off years of other people’s pent-up emotions for a quick moment of making the audience bawl. (They did.) There’s also Danny Liles, the only male profiled in depth, up for parole for the first time in some 25 years. Will the salty but lovably candid inmate give us a happy ending with his return to the world or a sad one with his return, once more, behind the walls? Does it make a difference?
“Sweethearts” is, as they say, a crowd-pleaser. It’s also tedious and finally exasperating. It shouldn’t be news to anyone that the incarcerated are people too, but Beesley (this time, anyway) isn’t into anything not tried, trite and true: he wants women showing off the photos of their kids, who they haven’t seen in years and miss, and that takes care of the tears. Comedy comes easy when you’ve got amateur competitors trying to ride an ad-hoc mechanical bull (simulated with prisoners variously tugging on ropes tied to a suspended saddle) and hitting the ground –– a good fall gets a laugh every time. Beesley doesn’t even seem to know what his movie’s about when it’s not hitting the beats. Is it, in fact, about the female sweethearts? If so, why, and what makes them more compelling than any number of young women in similarly dire straits on the outside? Is male Danny — a 13-year rodeo veteran who’s got the reformed hellraiser’s knack for disarming your reservations with his own bluntness at every turn— actually a more compelling character, and if so why isn’t he the main character (or in the title, for that matter; he gets enough time)? Why is the structure of this movie such a mess, and why do we learn nothing we couldn’t have figured out on our own before showing up?
What “Sweethearts” knows — what audiences come to be wanly reassured of — is that folks are folks; if we ignore the most obvious differences between them, everyone feels vaguely reassured. It’s remarkable how much interesting stuff that could’ve provided at least some counterpoint is flat-out ignored. What, for example, of the wizened old men — true cowboys at their most iconographic — who come to train the prisoners? What do they think of all this? No answer. What are the implications of Oklahoma’s draconian prison system for the nation’s? No interest. “Sweethearts” kills your soul: in its search for “common humanity” (whatever that is), it flattens a unique environment into one like any other. Which sucks, because I really do want Beesley to be Oklahoma’s cinematic poet laureate; someone has to.