Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo
Directed by Brad Beesley
It's rather astounding that Brad Beesley's documentary Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo, at a lean, mean 90 minutes, manages to be about so much: Aside from its chronicling one of only two remaining U.S. prison rodeos (yes, that's something), the film is a commentary on the treatment of incarcerated women in the state of Oklahoma, an inquiry into the fairness of long-term imprisonment for crimes committed years ago, and an expose on the damage done to children whose parents have forever devastated their families. Alternately bizarre, infuriating, fascinating, and, at last, touching, Sweethearts follows a colorful cast of Oklahoman inmates as they gear up for the 67th Annual Oklahoma Prison Rodeo, which offers a handful of prisoners at correctional facilities throughout the state an epic night of gladiatorial-esque glory. A film about convicted felons, robbers, and murderers participating in an old-fashioned rodeo as public entertainment will surely enrage many, but it's hard to imagine even the most morally unadventurous of filmgoers to not find some level of fascination in all of this. In the months leading to the rodeo, the participating inmates share the often brutal circumstances of their crimes committed with an openness and honesty that's both shocking and humane, reminding that people who commit even the most heinous of crimes have their own troubled histories that have landed them in the slammer. But for those dreading a bleeding heart piece on how ''we're all human,'' fear not: Beesley's film impresses by never directly begging the viewer's sympathy for its sweethearts, instead letting the tears and cheers engage the audience's most basic emotions. As easy as it'd be to demonize the film's subjects for their wrongdoings (and many will, especially in the case of convicted murderer Danny, the film's most dangerous and controversial portrait), it's difficult to not feel some sort of excitement for these prisoners turned rodeo-ers while their estranged families cheer them on as they bull ride their way into Oklahoma State Prison Rodeo history.
Opens September 17 at IFC Center