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Color gives our lives meaning without having any real meaning itself. I kept thinking this as I watched Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine's Inocente, a disarming profile of a homeless 15-year-old girl in San Diego who gets a big break when she's chosen to create a 30-work show for a local gallery as part of the nonprofit program ARTS. The movie's guiding visual motif is an overhead time-lapse shot of Inocente at work, creating boldly colorful canvases with happy, cartoonish forms but fairly sophisticated layerings of dripped paint and other stuff. They're beautiful, and they make you marvel at the heart that could create them while bearing so much unhappiness day to day.
She lives with her mother, Carmela, and two brothers, though their abode varies from homeless shelters to friends' houses to apartments that they quickly lose for lack of rent; the children attend school and the mother scavenges cans and bottles for money (Redemption, another of the Oscar-nominated short docs, treats this grinding occupation as well). According to Inocente, she was beaten habitually by her father until he was deported to Mexico, which triggered the family's homelessness, and on one occasion, Carmela confesses, their situation was so bleak she decided to kill the children and then herself.
In a way the film is beyond criticism: I could note the sappy, uninspired score, which works overtime to counter Inocente's monotone narration, but those flaws are easy to overlook given the hard facts on view. Art-world cynics will tell you the girl has what seemingly every visual artist needs to get ahead these days—a dramatic backstory—but when you think about the odds against her making a living as a working artist, that charge seems petty. Only someone filled with hope and self-trust would see art as a way out of homelessness. For more people, I suspect, it's the way they got into it.