Rascal is the leader of a Latina gang who appears in control and unfazed by the morning's fight with a rival gang and the subsequent brutal initiation of a new member into her fold. However, she is also secretly working on an application to a prestigious writing program in Iowa that her teacher (Danny Glover) is encouraging her to pursue.
A fight with her parents sends Rascal into the streets, where she starts to learn who she can actually rely on, and glimpses a world outside of the one she's stuck in. But senseless violence soon catches up with her and the tragic consequences force her to make a choice.
The film is a brutal and uncompromising look at an environment characterized by poverty and desperation that offers little hope for its young inhabitants. Director Alan Jacobs (Nina Takes a Lover) uses a shaky, handheld feel that looks grainy and sun-bleached to capture the tumultuous world. The script, with book ending voiceovers from Rascal and authentic-sounding dialogue, does well capturing the contrast between the shockingly commonplace physical and sexual violence of gang life and the moments of light-hearted girlhood that its young characters can somehow still enjoy.
Lead actress Jessica Romero is a fresh and vivid presence in her film debut as Rascal, supported well by seasoned players Danny Glover (in the role of the caring and invested teacher) and Kate del Castillo, as Rascal's mother, herself a reformed gang member.
It's well realized and not without some hope, but the unrelenting bleakness and harsh depictions of violence make Down for Life difficult to watch. (Por Vida)