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Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo

Not rated, 90 min. Directed by Bradley Beesley.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Sept. 17, 2010

Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo "It's not a rodeo like you would go to Madison Square Garden and see," explains 13-year Oklahoma State Prison Rodeo vet (and convicted murderer) Danny Liles. To him, it's about touching freedom, albeit the bucking, thrashing, wild-eyed kind you find atop an angry bull. Beesley's engaging doc is a far cry from his winsomely weird portrait of the Flaming Lips, The Fearless Freaks, and his equally bizarre but utterly unforgettable Okie Noodling. Sweethearts is more conventional a documentary in every regard, and at times it feels like a reality television pilot awaiting a weekly audience. That's not necessarily Beesley's fault, though; the possibly calculated subversion of classic "documentary filmmaking" by "reality television" has been going on at least since Cops hit the street (recall the Belgian faux-documentary Man Bites Dog?), and these days you're far more likely to find that Orson Welles' F for Fake-ry is more the order of the day than actual, Maysles- or Pennebaker-style, fly-on-the-wall cinema verité. While honest and laden with bittersweet emotions (regret is all over the place, but hope pops up unexpectedly every now and again), Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo doesn't exactly explode any myths or muckrake up any scandals. If anything, it's surprisingly tame, although given the titular subject matter, a melancholy sort of melodrama comes with the territory. Beesley, probably the most well-known Okie filmmaker working today (though he’s been based largely in Austin for years), sets his sights on the only behind-the-walls prison rodeo in the world, held every September in McAlester, Okla. In 2006, prison officials decided to make the previously male-only event coed, which only increased the already wild popularity of the event. Four female inmates from the nearby Eddie Warrior Correctional Center are profiled: straight-talking double-mugger Rhonda Buffalo; Jamie Brooks, awaiting parole as the film begins; Brandy "Foxie" Witte, convicted of multiple felonies and tearfully trying to locate the family she hasn't seen in 12 years; and the unfortuitously named Crystal Herrington, jailed for possession and intent to manufacture (methamphetamine, one presumes). Beesley spends almost as much time with their male counterparts, in particular the affable Danny Liles, who explains the ropes to rodeo newcomers while simultaneously waxing prison-yard eloquent on life on the inside. There's no shortage of narrative conflict, to be sure, but by the time the female inmates ride out into the rodeo stadium in their pink Western-wear shirts and jeans, you're less interested in who exactly is going to last those interminable eight seconds atop the mad cow than you are curious about what happens to these five shackled souls next. Once the rodeo's over, where do the sweethearts go? Beesley, thankfully, doesn't end the film with the end of the rodeo, but there's a potentially more interesting follow-up doc ghosting right behind this one. (See "Behind Bars, But Bucking the System," Sept. 17, for an interview with the filmmaker.)
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