's deft, intelligent movie follows an inmate, Treasure Lee (Yolonda Ross
in her feature film debut), as she searches for the convict mother she hasn't seen since birth. The film should do well for HBO -- it airs June 23 -- especially on repeat broadcasts as word-of-mouth builds. Dunye exhibits an admirable, unsentimental compassion in her storytelling, and the film feels more authentic than HBO's acclaimed series "Oz," whose florid, operatic touches are often ludicrous. The film screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival.
Treasure, incarcerated in a juvenile facility, stabs an inmate so that she'll get transferred to a maximum-security state pen, where a woman named Brownie (Davenia McFadden
) resides. Treasure believes that Brownie is her mother. Brownie occupies a rarefied place in the prison. Feared by the other inmates, she runs a smuggling operation with the help of a corrupt guard.
Dunye shows the pseudo-family structures that develop. Brownie is the "husband," her lover is the "wife," and she has several "daughters," including Kit (Rain Phoenix
), who's jealous of Treasure's claim of blood ties.
What's most affecting about the film are its details. An older Asian woman gains access to the kitchen and makes fried rice to get Treasure's protection. Treasure's bunkmate castigates her for using the chapel for sex.
The inmates' basketball games reveal and shape the hierarchy among them. Perhaps Dunye's greatest achievement is the group therapy sessions, which feature several actual former convicts. In these meetings, the women sometimes reveal who they really are, and the hard mask of prison life briefly drops from their faces. A white, older member of the group has well-groomed, gray-blond hair and fastidiously applied eye makeup. But when she tells the women what's what, you see the inner steel that's allowed her to survive.
It's difficult to tell if Ross is much of an actor, but she's an amazing camera subject. She has the hard-packed look of a track sprinter who never wins. McFadden gives a ferocious performance. Her Brownie is a master manipulator who's excised all emotion from herself. Phoenix is surprisingly good as the dour, bitter Kit. Just when you've dismissed the character, she becomes the most dangerous.
Dunye uses violence economically and, as a result, it has shock and importance when it occurs. She handles the melodrama well, and the plot turns are surprising and well timed.
Occasionally, the dialogue in the script -- by Dunye and Catherine Crouch
-- resorts to banalities, as in the scene where Brownie accepts Treasure as her daughter. During Treasure's illicit foray into the chapel, Dunye mistakenly includes a gratuitous, obvious shot of a Madonna and child painting. Also, the film's last scene is unsatisfying -- ambiguous without being evocative. But despite its flaws, "Stranger Inside" is a film with impact.
HBO Films in association with Stranger Baby Prods. and C-Hundred Film Corp.
Producers:Jim McKay, Michael Stipe
, Effie T. Brown
Screenwriters:Cheryl Dunye, Catherine Crouch
Director of photography:Nancy Schreiber
Production designer:Candi Guterres
Costume designer:Frank Helmer
Treasure Lee:Yolonda Ross
Shadow:LaTonya "T" Hagans
"Mama Cass": Conchata Ferrell
Running time -- 95 minutes
No MPAA rating