Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | July 5th, 2021
Courtroom 3H (Antonio Méndez Esparza, 2020) 4 out of 4 stars.
For most people outside the judicial system, the courthouse is no doubt low on their list of pleasant places to visit. Dependency Court, which handles matters pertaining to the abuse, neglect and/or abandonment of children, offers an especially bleak array of cases. If one is among those whose children have been taken away (for good reason, it often seems), then the choice, however painful, is clear: change one’s behavior or face the possibility of losing parental rights. Tough as that might be, it could be for the child’s best. But not always. In Courtroom 3H, a new documentary from director Antonio Méndez Esparza (Life and Nothing More), we follow the ins and outs and highs and lows of the women and men who work in and for the Second Judicial Circuit in Leon County, Florida, who determine the fates of the adults and minors who find themselves charged and represented. It’s a fully engrossing movie, powerful in its emotional impact, a slice of life we didn’t know we needed to see that transforms us in the viewing.
The movie is broken into two sections, separated at the midpoint: Part I – Hearings and Part II – Trials. In the first half, we watch various people come in front of Judge Jonathan Sjostrom, biological and foster parents, alike, with the children in question sometimes present, too (their faces almost always blurred out). The reasons for the initial removal of those children from their parent’s (or parents’) care are many across the variety of cases we see, from physical violence, drug addiction and more. Some parents work successfully with their lawyers, therapists and the judge to turn their lives around; others succumb to the realization that their children would be better adopted by others. No matter the outcome, these are heartbreaking moments to see. And any visible sign of anger or frustration on the part of the parents would merely demonstrate that they are by no means ready to have their children back. In the second half, we watch two cases go to trial, each with different results.
“If one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country, one goes to the unprotected and listens to their testimony.” So opens Courtroom 3H with a quote from James Baldwin, and it is important to keep in mind that for many of the parents, no matter how abusive or neglectful they have been, life has not been easy. As one mother reminds the judge, thankful for his compassion, she comes from a dysfunctional family, herself, and struggles to grasp what responsibility entails. But she tries, and is getting better. Others are not so capable of change and acceptance.
Throughout it all is the calm empathy of Judge Sjostrom, who makes a point to tell parents who have finally decided to give up claims to their children that he understands how difficult it is, praising their courage to do so. As another beginning title card informs us, “the court’s first priority, mandated by law, is to put the family back together as quickly and safely as possible.” And so Sjostrom keeps an open mind, knowing that the process could take time. Joining him in the labor are the hard-working lawyers, doing the best they can for their clients, be they the parents or the children. By the end, though we have often been sad, we should also feel some satisfaction that the system can work. It’s not very pretty, but it’s still a beautiful thing.