In interviews, Rudy Valdez has said the first moments of “The Sentence” are the first moments of a career in filmmaking, something that his sister Cindy Shank had once hoped to pursue. But for reasons that soon make themselves known, he’s the one filming her daughters Autumn and Ava, as the former prepares for a dance recital with Cindy only able time be heard over the phone asking them to describe how Autumn’s dressed. It isn’t long before Autumn is turning the camera on Uncle Rudy to ask, “How do you feel about Cindy being so far away?” and the realization sets in that time and space have suddenly become very tangible for the family in the wake of a 15-year prison stretch that the matriarch will serve for once being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
At first, it seems particularly unfair that this sentence will cover Autumn, Ava and the just-born Annalise’s entire childhood, no matter what crime Cindy was accused of committing, but as Valdez gradually reveals, what constitutes the crime is outrageous in its own right. Once the girlfriend of a drug dealer, Cindy was prosecuted on a conspiracy charge after he died, essentially taking his place as far as the law was concerned with her proximity to her ex carrying a sentence the same as if she were in possession of drugs and guns herself. The mandatory minimum for the charges is 15 years, and after having them dropped one time before, Cindy shouldn’t have expected a knock on the door years later after she started a new life with a new husband, yet finds herself behind bars for a crime to which her connection is tenuous at best.
Despite being central figures in the story, Rudy and Cindy feel as though they’re bystanders in “The Sentence,” both appropriately within the context of the film and all too unfortunately in real life, with Cindy only heard over the phone during supervised calls from prison and Rudy often unseen behind the camera, probing family members for feelings they never thought they’d have, as life pushes ahead without them. Seeing Cindy’s trio of girls grow up over the course of nearly a decade without her is wrenching enough, but Valdez is wise to move back and forth in time slightly to offer up context at just the right moments to show just how devastating her absence is for the entire Valdez family, circulating between Cindy’s husband Adam, who finds it hard to maintain a connection when he’s not seeing her for weeks at a time, her father who can’t even bring himself to write letters to her since he wouldn’t know what to say, and her mother who often is Rudy’s company for trips to whatever prison camp she’s been moved to, which spans from Florida to Kentucky while the family is based in the Midwest.
Although Valdez makes some effort to place Cindy’s case in a greater context by referring to a few legal experts to demonstrate that her predicament is hardly unique, “The Sentence” is at its best when it stays intimate, with the specificity of the family’s personal experience and the simple yet profound passage of time that you see shaping Autumn, Ava and Annalise being far stronger than any legal arguments that can be made, something the director seems to know by only occasionally referring to his own ongoing effort to pursue clemency. In simply picking up a camera to bear witness to Cindy’s plight, Valdez has taken some power back from a system which has clearly failed and while much of “The Sentence” is devoted to how helpless his family has been made to feel, the result is mighty.