The girls of Troop 1500 share an unusual bond, one that goes beyond the badges and s'mores that shape most Girl Scout memories: All their mothers are in prison. Eight or 10 Girl Scouts hop in a van once a month and take a 90-minute ride from Austin, Texas, to the Hilltop Unit in Gatesville, where they hold a mother-daughter troop meeting behind bars.
It's a compelling subject for a documentary, and filmmakers Ellen Spiro and Karen Bernstein gathered a wealth of material in the years they spent on ''Troop 1500: Girl Scouts Beyond Bars." They sat in on sometimes sweet, sometimes heart-wrenching meetings with the mothers and daughters; they talked with the stepfathers and grandparents who care for the girls while Mom's away; they interviewed the skeptical prison warden, as well as the chipper social worker and the lively professor who run the troop; they gave the Scouts ''girlcams" to record touching, often painfully honest interviews with their mothers.
Those moments of connection and confrontation between mother and daughter create some of the film's most powerful moments. As the girls ask their mothers why they made the bad decisions that landed them in prison, what they hope to do when they get out, or how they feel while they're there, we share the anguish and confusion both of the inmates and of the children they've hurt. It doesn't take a sociologist to see how difficult it can be for one generation to recover from the wounds inflicted on, and by, the one before it.
To their credit, the filmmakers make it clear that this program may help, but it's no panacea for a dauntingly complex and intractable social problem. But it's regrettable, and ultimately frustrating, that Spiro and Bernstein keep pulling the attention away from their subjects and toward their own technique. Again and again, extreme close-ups of women gazing into the camera dissolve into similar shots of their daughters, with every blink recorded in agonizing slow motion; montages of women standing in the same place as time passes drive home, with heavy-handed literalism, the inertia of prison life.
Most jarring, perhaps, are the filmmakers' attempts at irony: repeated intercutting of prison footage with camp films (in every sense) from the Girl Scout archives, in case we don't get how startling it is to have girls gathering in a lockup instead of a tent, or breaking up each phrase of the troop's recital of the Girl Scout creed with the mothers' recital of the offenses that brought them here. The situation carries its own contradictions, and we don't need them underlined.
What we do need more of is a clearer sense of the girls' individual identities, fears, and dreams. The filmmakers' website tells us: ''Their mothers may be convicted thieves, murderers, and drug dealers, but the girls of Troop 1500 want to be doctors, social workers and marine biologists." If only the film had told us that, too. The glimpses of the girls we do get make us long to know them better. For what stays with us is not the cheap irony of ''Girl Scouts Beyond Bars" but the cost of being those girls.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.