The outside world is glimpsed twice only, the opening and closing shots; if corridors here seem more spacious than in Frederick Wiseman's previous portraits of institutional hell, it's because of the filmmaker's feel of dilated humanity coursing through them. The Juvenile Court of Shelby County, Memphis, provides the setting, though we could still be in Basic Training: youngsters are herded, booked, frisked, and shorn while waiting for a maiden taste of the justice system. A probation-breaking 11-year-old girl sobs, a couple argues the difference between punishment and abuse when it comes to a child's spanking, a 15-year-old is accused of molesting the girl he was baby-sitting -- each case could be a film of its own, and Wiseman's density of narrative (and his refusal to inflict answers) illustrates his respect for the mystery and largeness of the lives on display. A pimply delinquent listens as Bible-carrying rehabilitators promise him liberation and direction through Jesus, then joining them in prayer; on trial later, the kid insists on his alibi and refuses to plead guilty, so the court declares he can't really "turn to the Lord." Who gets to decide? Judge Turner presides humanely, as do the other social workers, but Wiseman knows how society attempts to order complex problems into tidy verdicts, particularly when determined off the record and behind the chamber's closed doors -- a judicial decision is detailed, from genesis to delivery, in the extended final passage, a gulf widening between the attorneys, psychiatrists and courtroom officers settling somebody's future with businesslike, determinist concern and the shaky juvenile just outside, asking "Isn't there any justice?" (For the documentarian it's not a matter of youth versus adulthood or innocence versus guilt, but rather the labyrinth both sides find themselves helplessly locked into.) Wiseman's halls can be as desolate as Kubrick's, yet hope lies in the kids' wounded, prematurely weary faces, caught in close-ups made Cassavetesian by pragmatic-compassionate gaze and faith in life making it through America's meat grinders. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce