Here’s a true surprise in 2018: a documentary about an American injustice that will likely leave you, by its end, blubbering tears of relieved joy. Rudy Valdez’s deeply personal The Sentence takes a close-up, decade-long look at the cruel impact of inflexible mandatory-minimum criminal sentencing on one American family. Cindy Shank, Valdez’s sister and the mother of three young daughters, received a 15-year sentence as a co-conspirator in drug crimes she had nothing to do with — she lived in an apartment with the actual criminal. Valdez shot from 2008 on, tracking the girls’ motherless childhood, the many trips they took with their father and other relatives for visits to federal prison, the Christmas presents Mom knit and sent from jail, the everyday methods of coping the family developed. Sometimes when Shank calls home, she asks simply to listen, on speakerphone, to what she’s missing.
With great sensitivity, Valdez documents the dissolution of Shank’s marriage but also the commitment of all the adults involved to keep Shank in the girls’ lives. (“I’m trying to film as much as I can so that you see the girls grow up a little bit more,” Valdez tells Shank.) We see the girls grow, as the film progresses, the oldest approaching teendom. Eventually, the family and filmmaker begin to mention a word that sounds too good to hope for: clemency.
The final third of The Sentence proves miraculous, an instance of America’s institutions of powers being prodded into attempting to undo an injustice. (Hey, this was the tail end of the Barack Obama years!) Suddenly, Mother is coming home, and the family members dedicate themselves to surprising the girls with the good news. Twice, a cheery-teary spectacle is a privilege to behold.