From high school to the slammer | Movie Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Film » Movie Critic's Choice

From high school to the slammer

Frederick Wiseman's Juvenile Court documents the trials of youth


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An early masterpiece by the great documentary maker Frederick Wiseman, this 1973 black-and-white feature takes viewers inside the juvenile court system in Memphis as lawyers and social workers wrestle with the dilemmas common to prosecuting teen and preteen offenders. Among them are a 12-year-old girl charged with prostitution, a male babysitter accused of sexual molestation, a hopeless stoner charged with selling LSD, and a young man who served as wheelman for his pal's robbery and now tearfully insists he was coerced. The movie represented a quantum leap for Wiseman in terms of narrative reach: though it runs 144 minutes, substantially longer than anything he'd ever attempted, it's never less than engrossing. With its high drama and telling detail, it confirms the director's already formidable skills as a storyteller and a silent, penetrating observer of American institutions.

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