Today, when Jessica Romero talks about her future, the Wilmington teenager and star of the new feature film "Down for Life" says she wants to become a marine biologist.
But not so long ago, Romero wasn't sure whether she'd have any future at all. Like the girl-gang leader she plays in "Down for Life," she was embarked on an unpredictable, sometimes violent existence with no clear path leading out.
"I wouldn't think about tomorrow, I would always just think about the moment because tomorrow was never promised to you," Romero said during an interview last week with fellow cast members Andrea Valenzuela and Isamar Guijarro and director Alan Jacobs at Locke High School in South Los Angeles, where some of the film was shot.
"I didn't never even think that I would be here today," she continued. "At a certain point in life, I thought I was going to, like, die."
That was before Romero, 17, and several other girls with no previous acting experience were plucked from Los Angeles-area high schools and placed on the set of "Down for Life." The emotional chemistry among those novice performers, in concert with a few seasoned pros such as Danny Glover, Kate del Castillo and Snoop Dogg in secondary roles, is one of the things that makes "Down for Life" feel more authentic and credible than many of the countless other movies that have been made over the decades about L.A. gang life.
The filmmakers said they met thousands of youths at several area schools before finding the handful of Latinas who play the movie's principal gang-member roles. In his casting notes, Jacobs observes that two of his favorite films, "The Bicycle Thief" and "Open City," as well as the Brazilian "City of God," used amateur performers in the lead roles "with great success."
"I figured it would be easier to teach a street kid to act than to teach a teen actor to play street," he writes.
Because of its young cast members' real-life experiences, the 92-minute drama, which premiered Saturday at the Toronto International Film Festival, brings street cred to two of the movie's thorniest topics: urban girl gang bangers and tensions between L.A. Latinos and African Americans. One of the movie's most fateful plot twists involves a nasty scuffle between rival posses of Latinas and black girls that propels Romero's character, Rascal, into a series of bruising encounters.
Shot on location in South Central and other L.A. locales, "Down for Life" evokes the city in all its stark contrasts of privilege and poverty, hope and despair. The screenplay, written by Jacobs and Trina Calderon, is based on a 2005 New York Times article, "Essays in Search of Happy Endings" by reporter Michael Winerip, about a class at Locke in which students were assigned to write about one day in their lives. The article cited the essay of one 15-year-old girl who was affiliated with a local gang and who described her bleak neighborhood life as well as a number of violent and even deadly incidents involving herself and her friends.
In "Down for Life," Rascal is, similarly, a bright but troubled Latina who's struggling at school but shows considerable promise as a writer. Her harried mother (Del Castillo) is trying to keep her children off the streets, heads bowed over their homework, so that they may be able to skirt the mistakes she made in her own youth.
Meanwhile, one of Rascal's teachers (Glover) is putting his reputation on the line to encourage Rascal to apply to a prestigious writing workshop in Iowa.
Romero's life in a number of ways echoed her character's. Growing up in Wilmington, she was raised largely by her grandmother, an upright, religious woman. But when her grandmother died in 2006, Romero said, she started drifting in and out of foster and group homes. On the very day before she was first approached by the filmmakers about acting in "Down for Life," Romero said, she'd been planning to run away from her group home near USC.
As the filmmakers discovered at one early casting session, Romero in the past had been affiliated with a Wilmington street gang. "They started asking me questions," Romero recalled, "like, 'Have you ever been in a fight? Who started the fight, you or the other girl?' And I was like, 'Well, honestly, I've started a lot of fights.' Fistfights. Not pulling hair, not scratching."
Her acting colleagues Guijarro and Valenzuela, both first-generation Mexican American daughters of immigrants, never were involved in gang activity, but they'd been around it at school. Guijarro, who will turn 18 next month and wants to study theater and dance at community college this spring, said she had witnessed a much-publicized near-riot that broke out at her former high school, Locke, a couple of years ago.
"It was just like a big rumble," said Guijarro, who in the movie plays the newly recruited gang member named Troubles. "It wasn't all racial, but people think it is. But it wasn't. Because I seen a Mexican guy had a friend that was black, and was defending his black friend."
Valenzuela, who also will turn 18 next month and entered UC Santa Barbara this fall as a freshman political science student, said she thought that media reports in recent years about creeping black-Latino hostility across Southern California "might be overdone a little but, obviously, it's there."
"When I see that personally, when I hear about it, it brings tears to my eyes," said Valenzuela, who plays Babygirl, one of Rascal's homegirls. "We're both colored people. So when you're fighting against each other, it's like, why?"