One of the most honest and telling moments of From Place to Place involves an innocent slip of the tongue. Micah, an 18-year-old who first entered a group home at age nine, is walking along the Clark Fork River and talking about his recent release from jail on a felony charge of breaking down a bathroom door at Southgate Mall. The judge apparently takes into account Micah's past—he's been in 21 homes in 10 years—and his tenuous future as an expecting father.
"I got out of jail today," says Micah. "I was in there for two-and-a-half, three months...and they gave me a three-year deferred sentence with a six-month [sentence] to run concurrent, which means when I—er, if I—fuck up again they'll put my sentences together and make me do both of them together at the same time."
Micah's stumbling over the difference between "when" and "if" underlines one of the more glaring points in this feature-length documentary: A deeply flawed foster care system almost guarantees that he'll end up back in jail. Even more troubling is that Micah knows this and seems resigned to his fate.
From Place to Place explores the troubling issue of what happens to foster kids once they're no longer under the state's care. "Care," of course, is a funny word. The film, directed by Paige Williams of Missoula-based Porch Productions, illustrates how a lifetime of jumping from temporary home to temporary home creates a permanent problem with how each foster kid functions in society. A system intended to save at-risk youth may, under its current setup, actually increase the risk.
The faces of such a monumental problem become three Missoula teenagers: Micah, his sister Mandy, and a big-hearted street kid named Raif. Mandy, who was placed in 13 homes over seven years, is the most grounded, earning her GED, applying to the College of Technology, and working to maintain a serious relationship. She wonders who might walk her down the aisle when she gets married. Raif (eight homes, four years) spends most of his time beatboxing for spare change on the sidewalk outside Liquid Planet. He's comfortable living on the street, has tried to leave Missoula 45 times since aging out of foster care and talks at length about just wanting someone to love him. Micah gets introduced early in the film, but then disappears. As expected, his second chance ends with an arrest for purse snatching. He spends the rest of filming in jail.
Mandy and Raif are treated to a more unexpected turn of events. After an early version of From Place to Place gets screened for state lawmakers, they receive an invitation to speak in Washington, D.C., at a congressional caucus dealing with foster care reform. They become not just the faces of a locally made documentary but also of an effort to reshape national policy. Watching the two of them step into this high-profile role provides the film's best footage and a stunning transformation, especially with Mandy. By the closing credits she looks completely different, full of a purpose and confidence never previously afforded.
Williams has her work cut out for her in tackling such a huge topic and following such an improbable string of events. The biggest challenge is striking the right balance between the three main personal stories and the broader issue of foster care in America. The latter gets force-fed with a series of statistics tossed onto the screen, each accompanied by music from Wapikiya Records, the Missoula hip-hop label. The figures are important—every year, 30,000 kids age out of foster care, and by age 21, one in seven will be homeless, 50 percent will be unemployed, and 77 percent of the men will be arrested—but the constant presentation interrupts the film's flow.
The personal stories also lack some of the expected grit inherent to the subject matter. Mandy says point-blank that she was a troubled kid who deserved to be moved from home to home, but we never learn what she did or hear from any of her foster parents. You'd expect to see more of where Raif crashes each night, what he eats, and how he survives day-to-day performing for spare change. He puts up such a brave and charming front that street life doesn't seem that bad.
Perhaps the shortage of observed detail at the start is what makes the trip to D.C. so effective. The viewer finally gets to see Mandy and Raif in action, dispelling the statistics and simply telling their stories on a grand stage. It's a classic study in contrast, with Raif wearing a studded leather jacket—he can hardly get past the metal detectors—and asking polished politicians for a simple answer: How can he make it better? Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., says he'll approach it the same way he'd eat an elephant: one bite at a time. In a separate meet-and-greet, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, says he'll handle it the same way he would 10,000 marshmallows: by eating one at a time.
It's no wonder that D.C. embraced Raif and Mandy's straightforward message with such enthusiasm and, eventually, action. Nothing takes the place of a powerful personal story.
From Place to Place screens at the Wilma Thursday, June 2, at 7 PM. $8/$5 advance at Rockin Rudy's and fromplacetoplacemovie.com.