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The Independent Critic

Alex Bailon, Chuy Hernandez, Dominiq Porter
Jake Hochendoner, Drew Dickler
82 Mins.
1091 Pictures

 "Fireboys" Screens at 30th Anniversary Heartland Film Fest 
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Having had its world premiere at Dances With Films, Fireboys screens this week at Indy's own Heartland International Film Festival in Indianapolis as it winds down its festival journey and heads into distribution with indie distributor 1091 Pictures. 

Fireboys tells the untold story of young men incarcerated in California who are offered a way out - by fighting wildfires. However, the same system that offers them opportunity also lets them down once they are released. 

Co-directed by Emmy Award-winning filmmakers Jake Hochendoner and Drew Dickler, Fireboys is a compelling and occasionally maddening feature doc that makes us care about these young men and then ticks us off when we realize that the system, at least in some ways, ultimately betrays them. Hochendoner and Dickler are the only filmmakers ever given full access to the Pine Grove firefighters, a group of firefighters who have fought in all of California's biggest blazes including the 2018 Camp and Mendocino Complex fires. Unknown to many, it's doubtful that California could effectively fight these fires without the incarcerated firefighters who are at the heart of Fireboys. Fireboys tells their stories, both positive and negative, and explores the growing movement toward rehabilitation over retribution. 

It's hard to argue against the fact that these young offenders are getting a valuable, skill-building opportunity that can serve them well upon their release. However, it's also hard to not acknowledge that the system hasn't quite caught up their needs post-release. California's Proposition 57 prevents youths from being charged as adults for their crimes, a recognition that studies are increasingly showing that longer sentences simply don't work. 

Hochendoner's lensing here is never less than mesmerizing. Editing by Marielle Brinda is sharp and precise. However, the true impact of Fireboys lies in its central figures and boy do they deliver. Chuy Hernandez, Alex Bailon, and Dominiq Porter sign up for the Pine Grove Fire Camp. It's an opportunity that can lead to a reduced sentence if they maintain eligibility including completing a difficult training, staying on good behavior, and learning how to work together with their fellow firefighters. 

It's not easy. 

Ultimately, two of our three young men will make the team. They will grow as young men and gain valuable skills that can empower them once released. Chuy Hernandez's story, in particular, is compelling as the young man has crimes in his past that will ultimately prevent him from further pursuing his dream to join Cal Fire upon release. It's an understandable flaw in a system that hasn't quite figured out the full scope of what rehabilitation means. On the plus side, in 2020 California passed a law allowing incarcerated firefighters to have their records expunged as long as their convictions were not for crimes of violence. 

It's a start, but it's ultimately not a start that would help Chuy. 

Fireboys is an engaging and meaningful film that explores a topic unknown to a good majority of the population. Hochendoner and Dickler do a terrific job of exploring every angle of the issues and questions, perhaps not so much putting forth answers as putting forth the expectation that it's time we do more for those who are doing so much for us. As wildfires increase in California, these are questions all begging for answers. 

Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic

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