Viewers watch as Cowan bonds with his unlikely students, gently coaxing them to share their personal stories. We come to know Jarad as the entertaining (if occasionally obnoxious) comedian whose humor and nonchalant attitude mask a deep fear of emotional vulnerability. At the other end of the spectrum, Juan emerges as the emotionally sensitive and surprisingly self-aware individual whose greatest fear is the thought of loving someone without being loved in return. And then there’s Antonio, the underdog dreamer who longs to do noble things with his life, but lacks the patience and discipline to pursue them.
Lear acquaints us with their backstories through a series of private interviews, both with the inmates themselves and with outside parties involved in their cases. To be fair—and this is one of the film's most compelling qualities—not all of what we learn paints our protagonists in a particularly sympathetic light. But their stories share some common threads that set their flaws in context, eliciting viewers' compassion despite their serious shortcomings.
The film they write together, Los, is a gritty loss-of-innocence story about a misunderstood teen poet who risks the affection of his girl-next-door “crush” trying to fit in with his disowned older brother's delinquent friends. Lear skillfully weaves snippets of the final production into the documentary such that viewers intuitively recognize how every facet of this pithy film derives from something in Juan's, Jarad's, and Antonio's real-life experiences. It's a not-so-subtle hint that these youngsters' turbulent lives are full of the kinds of things viewers might otherwise imagine only happen in the movies.
What distinguishes Lear's storytelling approach from other works of this genre, however, is the way he frequently plays the devil's advocate to challenge our developing sympathy for his subjects. In what is by far the film's most gut-wrenching scene, for instance, we meet Vesenia Castro, one of Jarad's victims, now paralyzed from the waist down because of her injuries. Lear forces us to listen as she tearfully describes the stigma of being treated “differently” by her peers. He makes us watch as she awkwardly navigates daily chores from the confines of her wheelchair.
The scene is difficult to view, not just because of Vesenia's obvious suffering, but because at this point in the film we've come to know Jarad as more than the “monster” who did this to her. We're angry at him and recognize that he deserves to be severely punished, but inwardly we want to believe there's still some glimmer of hope for his future. And yet, recognizing that Vesenia's disability is both real and permanent, we also can't help but wonder: If her pain never ends, then why should his?
The emotional tug-of-war is brutal, just as Lear intends. With our sympathies caught between these two young lives, both forever changed by one senseless act of violence, we discover that justice is rarely as black-and-white as we might prefer it to be. We long for it to be served, but we're not really certain what it ought to look like in a case like this.
Arguably, that's the film's most important contribution. With its category-defying pastiche of stakeholder perspectives, it feels less like a heavy-handed work of advocacy than a quiet meditation on a difficult truth many of us would prefer to ignore: Evil knows no age restrictions. Those of us who haven’t grown up around the kind of violence these children describe can easily forget that evil isn’t something we “grow into”; it’s the basic condition into which we’re born.