SXSW 2024: Sing Sing, Bob Trevino Likes It, Hood Witch | Festivals & Awards
Movie Reviews

SXSW 2024: Sing Sing, Bob Trevino Likes It, Hood Witch | Festivals & Awards

Director Greg Kwedar and his co-writer Clint Bentley adapted the script from John H. Richardson’s 2005 Esquire article “The Sing-Sing Follies” and added embellishments, many devised by the cast, drawing on their own experiences. It was shot at Sing Sing and in a variety of other locations standing in for Sing Sing, including a decommissioned penitentiary and a high school. The same filmmaking team also co-wrote and directed another slice-of-life character-driven drama, “Jockey,” Both films seem to have been made in the spirit of abandoning one’s ego: although “Sing Sing” is filled with thoughtfully blocked group scenes and compositions that compare freedom and incarceration (I didn’t realize that Sing Sing is the only working prison in the world that freight and passenger trains run beneath!) the movie is more likely to just park the camera on the face of an incarcerated man as he performs a scene from a play or delivers a monologue drawn from his experience. There’s a rich tradition of filmmaking that draws equally on dramatic and documentary techniques. “Sing Sing” is a fine addition to it. Some of the group discussions are reminiscent of the moments in Hal Ashby’s classic VA hospital drama “Coming Home” where real-life Vietnam veterans talk extemporaneously about their war experiences in “rap sessions.”

Although the profanity, slang, and threats of violence are modern, and the program that introduces incarcerated men at Sing Sing penitentiary in Ossining, New York to theater—Rehabilitation Through the Arts, or RTA—was not implemented until 1996, it’s easy to imagine this film having been made and released in the 1960s (the tall, broad-shouldered Domingo’s silhouette evokes Burt Lancaster’s in the great prison drama “Birdman of Alcatraz”). Or perhaps earlier: the backbone of the movie is the unlikely friendship between Domingo’s character, the sensitive and empathetic Divine G, who’s behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit, and Clarence “Divine Eye” Maclin, another graduate of the real-life program who was sent to Sing Sing for armed robbery and plays a version of himself; the distinctively direct, at times “hard,” way they speak from the heart to one another channels black-and-white B-pictures where a slum kid becomes a priest who never stops trying to save the soul of his childhood friend who became a gangster. (When Maclin uses the N-word in an argument with Divine G, the latter informs him that the group has a rule against using that word and that he is henceforth required to replace it with “beloved.” And he does.)

The men in the story live in cells smaller than a lot of people’s bathrooms, but the ones who’ve decided to take advantage of the program immerse themselves in the history and traditions of theater and discuss the practical aspects of performance (such as blocking, tone, and memorization) with the intensity of athletes trading tips on how to improve their games. Few things are as innately cinematic as people in desperate circumstances doing what they can to better themselves.

Bob Trevino Likes It” is an example of what some people have called “Nicecore,” meaning a work of art that stresses kindness, generosity, empathy and other positive behaviors, and doesn’t undercut it with irony or cynicism. The main character, Lily Trevino (Barbie Ferreira), is a 25-year-old home care nurse whose father Bob (French Stewart) is a raging narcissist, the kind of guy who sits across from his daughter at lunch as she spills her heartbreak and barely looks up from the iPhone he’s using to determine which blonde from his senior community to date next. Lily’s mother, an addict, deserted the family when Lily was very young, and even though her dad stepped up, he openly resented Lily and treated her as more of a burden than a daughter. He’s about as irredeemable as a movie dad can get without committing crimes. 

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