Female prisoners get in the saddle
Informally sketched but deeply felt, Bradley Beesley’s documentary “Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo” mingles with the spirited cowgirl inmates who compete in Oklahoma’s annual state penitentiary rodeo, a 70-year tradition of Wild West-style showbiz that began to allow females to participate only in 2006.
Although there’s a queasy tinge of gladiatorial bloodlust in seeing society’s punished put themselves in hooves’ and horns’ way for spectator sport, the tears in one woman’s eyes as she describes leaving the correctional facility for an afternoon of outdoor training speak wonders. For these women — mostly drug offenders, many of them mothers — the chance to ride a bronc and possibly get hurt doing so (but maybe hold on longer than a competing male prisoner) is a treasured sliver of aspirational freedom, a flung-open gate in their closed-cell lives.
Beesley may prefer emotional confessions, parole drama and jail-life philosophizing to exploring the sociological underpinnings of Oklahoma’s female incarceration rate — the nation’s highest — but the sympathy in his portraits makes its mark. You’ll certainly wonder which prospect is nervier: conquering a bull for a few seconds or living a derailed life for as long as it takes.
— Robert Abele “Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo.” MPAA rating: 1 hour, 29 minutes. Playing at the Downtown Independent, Los Angeles.