Stranger Inside

Director: Cheryl Dunye

Reviewed by Paghat the Ratgirl

Very few films, even good ones, are perfect. Stranger Inside (2001) is as close to faultless as they come, an authentic work of art, though one without pretentions & thereby easily misunderstood as violent & sexploitatative rather than frank & honest. Which means it can be enjoyed by viewers who're interested primarily in mindless thrills, but will be a lot more interesting to viewers tuned into the truths & emotions imbedded in the piece.

Stranger InsideTreasure Lee (Yolanda Ross) had been in juvie a long time. While incarcerated she commited an act of violence so as to be transferred to an adult facility, where she hopes to get to know her biological mom, a lifer she has never met.

Her mother is Brownie (Davenia McFadden), who is housed in Unit A for the hard core, so not easy to get to meet her.

Treasure's unexplained interest in Brownie meets with consternation among other inmates, as no one can imagine why anyone would want intentionally to mess with her. For a long while Treasure could only glimpse Brownie in the yard, so knows she's a big scary bulldagger.

Shadow (LaTanya Hagans), Treasure's homegirl from juvie, has lately "graduated" to the adult facility. Shadow would really like to get her life straightened out, but with friends like these, it won't be a cinch.

As the tale progresses, Treasure's attempt to forge a family in a dehumanizing environment is moving & sometimes beautiful. But there is nothing sentimental here, & Brownie uses her considerable powers of motherliness to get young women to deal drugs for her. She uses her actual daughter no differently than any other girl under her sway, keeping herself clean of provable crimes.

Kit (Rain Phoenix) is a Latina who loves Brownie as if she were her real mother, & is distraught to be pushed aside by Brownie's new favoritism toward Treasure. Her sadness at Brownie's increasing cruelty is painful to see.

Brownie is an expansively bad influence on Treasure. There's enough likeability in Brownie, Treasure, everyone, that the probability of Brownie's true self betraying her daughter is just worrisome & tension-causing. We want to believe the best of even this terrible woman.

There are some very gung-ho lesbian sex scenes but otherwise this film is not at all exploitative. The characrters are gritty & real & rarely over-the-top like women-in-prison movies usually are.

There does have to be a filmic climax, however, & it betgins to look like Treasure will be convinced to take down Kit in a permanent manner. In her own pain, Kit has joined a gang of racist Latinas & sets out to murder Brownie, the mother figure she so greatly loved but who turned her out.

Brownie turns out to be less than half what she had seemed to be. When the mask is off, it's totally, horrifically gutwrenching, & the meaning of sociopath was never so clear.

Writer-Director Cheryl Dunye (who also made The Watermelon Woman, 1996) worked with actual inmates of a women's prison to arrive at a credible script. Michael Stipe of the rock band R.E.M. put up much of the funding. It debued as a cable telefilm, but has proven to possess legs of its own in the dvd release.

A great independent movie in its own brutal way, with action, adventure, romance, tragedy, terror, on the opposite extreme of safe Hollywood commercialism.

copyright by Paghat the Ratgirl

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