Jessica Earnshaw’s cinema-verité documentary Jacinta, recently awarded “Best Documentary Feature” at the 2021 Mountainfilm Film Festival, depicts a story that is at once nearly incredible and yet also all too familiar. Jacinta, a young woman who has lived most her adult life behind bars, struggles upon her release and worries for the future of her young daughter. Selected at AFIFest, DOC NYC, Tribeca Film Festival, where it won the Albert Maysles New Documentary Director Award, and now most recently Mountainfilm, Jacinta takes its viewers on a passenger-seat perspective on incarceration, addiction, and rehabilitation.
The coronavirus pandemic has been difficult for documentary filmmakers and the festival circuit on which their initial distribution and exhibition often depends. Many filmmakers had to delay or alter their productions, while festivals began to cancel due to COVID-19 precautions, including Tribeca, which made only a few select films available to jurors and critics. Many were able to pivot to a modified online platform that allowed, at least, for one central purpose of the festival—the exhibition of product—to take place, if not for the concomitant socializing, networking, and deal-making that accompanied it. In June 2021, the outlook for festivals in North America is a little less bleak, and Mountainfilm and others have been able to offer pared-down in-person events accompanied by online offerings.
Whether festivals will recover wholly from the pandemic is anyone’s guess, but in the meantime it seems likely that most will continue to offer some hybrid of in-person and virtual programming, just like Mountainfilm. Anyone who has been to Telluride for the in-person event knows how rich the in-person experience can be—hobnobbing with filmmakers, chatting with filmgoers, sampling the local fare, riding the gondola, or simply breathing the spring mountain air. As efficient as online exhibition platforms like Eventive may be, they offer no substitute for the pleasures of an in-person festival, especially one located in such a beautiful setting.
What the online version can offer is that same great array of content as an in-person festival, and the 2021 winner for Best Documentary Feature, Jacinta, like other recent award winners Minding the Gap and 17 Blocks, employs a verité-style approach to examine conflicts and traumas that are multi-generational in nature. The film opens with its subject, 26-year-old Jacinda Hunt, incarcerated at Maine Correctional Center, where among the other inmates is her mom, Rosemary. The two share smiles and affection as they reminisce fondly about their shared—but violent—history. How would a mother and daughter have both ended up incarcerated? And at the same time and in the same place?
Not long after Jacinta is released—first to her perpetually worried father Rick and then to a local sober house—her addiction takes control. Jacinta visits with her adorable ten-year-old daughter Caylynn, who astutely wonders aloud what’s keeping her mom’s sobriety intact other than the sober house Jacinta is itching to leave. Their love for each other is palpable: Jacinta practically gushes out the years’ worth of affection she’s kept bottled while incarcerated. Jacinta had relinquished custody when Caylynn was a baby to the father’s parents, who have devoted their lives to raising the girl. The absent bio-dad—like Caylynn’s mother and two of her brothers—is himself in jail. The whole family as a group is known, Jacinta says, for “chaos and crime.” It’s impossible not to worry that Caylynn, despite her intelligence, might face a fate like her mother’s and grandmother’s.
Perhaps unsurprisingly—would Jacinta make for a “Best Documentary” candidate if its subject did not suffer?—Jacinta’s newfound freedom clashes with her addiction. Although doing so risks that freedom, her relationships, and her spot at the sober house, Jacinta takes to the streets to score and is soon shooting heroin and shoplifting. Earnshaw’s camera is always along for the ride, whether Jacinta and her sister or friends are shooting up or stealing a laptop, recording and not questioning her judgments. Lewiston, Maine, as Jacinta’s brother notes, is “no place to get straight,” but it’s also not much different from hundreds of towns across the U.S. where the middle-working class got left behind and a network of drug dealers took root.
Though the film’s title suggests a focus solely on its protagonist, Jacinta isn’t so much a single-character study as it is a probing profile of cyclical and intergenerational trauma. Rosemary and Jacinta may love each other unconditionally, but unconditional love is no path to sobriety. Jacinta seems forgiving of transgressions that are unconscionable, and the fact that she loves her daughter as strongly as her mother offers little promise for young Caylynn’s future. Caught in these cycles of trauma and abuse, of addiction and withdrawal, of freedom and incarceration, Jacinta seems to know of no means by which she can do anything other than get high and busted. Her situation reaches a crisis that threatens the safety of her father, Rick, his face lined with perpetual worry, and those around him.
Without divulging Jacinta’s exact fate here, I’ll just note that Jacinta offers some hope for optimism even when her personal situation reaches its nadir. Back in prison and concerned for her daughter, Jacinta finds purpose in exercise and education. The social programs that offer college courses to inmates and the re-entry center that helps transition released women back into society provide a path towards the future.
Jacinta and her family—her mother Rosemary in particular—seem like they know nothing but addiction, theft, prostitution, and incarceration. The intergenerational trauma they endure and perpetuate will simply continue without some pathway other than simple incarceration. Research in Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) identifies incarceration as one such experience linked to homelessness, unemployment, and addiction, and Jacinta’s long stint behind bars, where she has lived for the majority of her adult life, is itself no solution to the problem.
Earnshaw’s documentary, with its unfettered access behind the gates of Maine Correctional Center, the halls of Jacinta’s sober house, the doors of the cars and apartments where she scores, and in the courts where she is sentenced, avoids pedantry. There are no statistics interposed, no experts cited, no overt narration; rather, Earnshaw, herself a photographer making her first feature film, trains the camera on Jacinta and her family and their story of love and loss. Earnshaw is present but unobtrusive, remarkably earning sufficient trust to film even the gruesome throes of detox and withdrawal Jacinta endures.
Jacinta’s story is in some ways unexceptional. A recent study determined that thousands of Maine’s children had a parent incarcerated in the state’s penal system. Those children are at greater risk for incarceration in the future themselves. And as Jacinta’s story suggests so eloquently, incarceration itself is no solution to the greater social issue of multigenerational trauma and addiction Earnshaw’s film depicts. Though its content is bleak, its conclusions are less so, and Jacinta offers some hope for the future. Over three and a half years in the making, Jacinta takes its time getting its story of cyclical trauma right.