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Lost for Life

D: Joshua Rofé / 75m

A candid, often unsettling look at juvenile killers, Lost for Life looks at four cases where teenagers have committed murder and are currently serving life sentences in US prisons.

The first case is that of Brian Draper and Torey Adamcik, a couple of sixteen year olds who convinced each other it would be a good idea to kill their classmate, Cassie Stoddart.  One night they went to her home and stabbed her to death.  The second case involves Jacob Ind, who at fifteen, killed his mother and stepfather by shooting them.  Third is the case of Josiah Ivy, who at sixteen killed two strangers, Stacy Dahl and Gary Alflen, at their home.  And lastly, there’s Sean Taylor, who at seventeen killed a rival gang member in a drive-by shooting.

Each case features the juvenile killers several years on from when they committed their crimes, and explores their reasons for killing and how they’ve dealt with the repercussions of their actions, and how  – or if – they’ve come to terms with what they did.  There’s also input from their families as well as some of the relatives of the victims, and the movie also takes in the recent Supreme Court decision relating to whether or not minors who commit murder should be sentenced to life without parole.

Lost for Life - scene

All four stories are potent in their own way, and initially it’s hard to understand just how any one of these murders could have come about, but thanks to the involvement of the perpetrators, it becomes clearer and clearer as the movie goes on that there’s never just one factor that sets things in motion, and that the reasons for these dreadful acts are often complex and unpredictable.  What makes these cases all the more interesting is the distance in time and attitude that these “teen killers” have travelled in their own efforts to recognise and grasp both the enormity of what they’ve down, and how their deeds have affected others.

Brian is perhaps the most balanced – if that word can be applied to someone who deliberately set out to kill a girl he was attracted to – of the group, and despite an intermittent stutter, is quite articulate as he talks about what he did and how he’s come to terms with his guilt and how “broken” he was as a teenager.  By contrast, his accomplice in the crime, Torey, is shown evincing an almost complete denial of his actions, and he’s supported by his parents who in one uncomfortable moment – both for Torey and the viewer – state his innocence as if it was the most obvious thing imaginable.  (And this in spite of the fact that the pair filmed themselves planning the murder, and then again after they’d committed it.)

Jacob is equally articulate but there’s something not quite right about his responses and the moments when he closes his eyes – which happen quite a lot – it’s as if he’s reliving the memories of killing his mother and stepfather.  It’s an unnerving possibility, and he’s almost casual about the effect killing them has had on him.  He’s aware of the wickedness of his crime, but it all comes across as if it had happened to someone else, and he talks dispassionately about the events that led up to the crime, including his persuasion of a friend to carry out the murders first of all, and his equally worrying admission that he shot both parents almost as if it was a fait accompli (his friend having failed to do the “job” properly).

The saddest case is that of Josiah, abused as a child and seen as a withdrawn adult, his emotions and his ability to talk about the random killings that will see him spend the rest of his life in prison so suppressed that his lawyer has to instruct him in how to respond from off camera.  To compensate, the movie spends more time with his sister Amber.  She proves to be an eloquent interviewee, but even she struggles to completely understand how her brother could have killed two complete strangers “just to see what it felt like”.  From this we meet Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, who founded the website www.teenkillers.org following the deaths of her sister and brother-in-law and their unborn baby, and Sharletta Evans who has forgiven the killers of her three year old son and thinks other teen “lifers” should be given a “first chance”.  Seeing the two women together is inspiring – albeit for different reasons – and adds a layer of emotion that helps show the effect that these crimes have on the victims’ families.

Sean’s story shows how redemption can be achieved.  In prison he became interested in Islam and eventually became a Muslim, changing not only his religion but his approach to life, rejecting his gang background and lifestyle, and forging a new life for himself.  His moving account of his rehabilitation offers hope for all those teenagers who have killed without giving due consideration of the effect their actions will have on others, and the way in which self-respect can be regained.  Without him the movie would have been painfully pessimistic, but thanks to Rofé’s considered approach to the material and the careful assembly of the various interviews, Lost for Life is a captivating, intriguing, and necessarily thought-provoking documentary that wisely avoids looking for definitive answers as to why these terrible crimes happened, but asks if we can ever forgive the people who commit them.  It’s a difficult question, and as mentioned before, the candour the movie invokes goes some way to increasing the difficulty in deciding, but without this challenge, the movie would not be as rewarding or as stimulating as it is.

Rating: 8/10 – a tough subject given fair treatment, and very pertinent in terms of what’s happened recently in US law, Lost for Life paints a terrifying portrait of youth gone awry; by shying away from a more sensationalist approach, this is an impressive, often haunting documentary that is both horrific and uplifting.