Saturday, February 16, 2008

Prison gals make a run for it in 'Racing for Time'

Because we're confronted almost daily with stories about people whose life circumstances never gave them a chance, it's no surprise we love stories about people who find one anyhow.
So "Racing for Time" takes us down a familiar path, focusing on a girl named Vanessa who seems destined to wind up as driftwood until she finds something that gives her the confidence to be more.
For Vanessa, played by Yaya DaCosta, that something is running, and the place she finds it is unlikely: a juvenile correction facility in Texas, where she has been sent after her no-'count boyfriend shot somebody and left her with the gun as he fled.
Her prognosis at that point isn't good. If she gets out, she'll probably drift back to the boyfriend and get burned again just because she doesn't see many other options. She spent her early years bouncing around foster homes - no parents anywhere in sight - and dropped out of school in junior high.
Because we know the setup, we also know what she needs: one person who believes in her and will be patient enough to give her a chance, realizing she may stumble along the way.

That turns out to be Cleveland (Mr. Stacks) Stackhouse, a guard at the correctional facility. Played by Charles S. Dutton, who also directed the film, Stacks gets the idea to organize a running team.
The goal, of course, is to provide a focus that will give these girls a chance to build self-esteem.

To its credit, the movie doesn't suggest running is a magic remedy for everyone.
But Vanessa sticks with it, through setbacks and personal struggles that gradually peel away her hard fa├žade to reveal a different and much more promising toughness underneath.
Meanwhile, the running program also helps inmates and officials confront a larger problem inside the institution: the sometimes violent rivalry between black and Latina inmates.
This part of the story is handled in a less nuanced way than the individual stories, suggesting a solution that feels a bit too easy. But the questions it raises are the right ones, and so are the places where it suggests the answers must be found.
For one thing, "Racing for Time" argues that solutions to personal problems are rarely isolated, and that success ultimately involves trusting others. So Vanessa's story is intertwined with those of several other inmates, all from equally challenging backgrounds.
Dutton the director makes their characters feel honest - honest enough that, in a mild departure from most Lifetime movies, this one does not suggest that all stories necessarily end well, at least on the first, second or third try.
But one story does show particular promise: Yaya DaCosta, a striking presence who in the right part could easily light up a larger screen.


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