By Leah Greenblatt
October 15, 2020 at 06:21 PM EDT
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Credit: Amazon Studios

Time opens with a sweet blur of home-movie domesticity: birthdays, snow days, screaming rollercoasters, and cannonballs in the pool. All the life, in other words, that Rob Richardson has missed in the nearly 20 years he’s spent in Louisiana's infamous Angola prison, with his wife Sibil and their six boys waiting on the other side.

It all unfolds before the opening credits of Garrett Bradley’s intimate, extraordinary documentary roll; some two decades reduced to a montage of moments. And there’s another much quieter scene later on that feels like it lasts nearly as long: Sibil and one of her older sons, sitting in fraught silence by the phone to find out whether Rob’s latest appeal for early release on a 60-year sentence with no possibility of parole will be the one to finally set him free.

That’s both the pain and pleasure of Time (in select theaters now and on Amazon Prime Oct. 16), whose title takes on myriad meanings as it goes on. The tender ordinariness of watching the boys go from toddling babies to grown men with mustaches and college degrees takes on an entirely different tone when the camera pans to the cardboard cutout of their father lovingly tacked to the wall of their New Orleans home; a heartbreaking stand-in for the man most of them have hardly gotten the chance to know outside Angola's walls.

In its scant 81-minute runtime, the movie, shot in rich black and white with a trilling piano score, somehow manages to gracefully address the looming issues of mass incarceration, race, and justice in America without ever feeling preachy or primly educational. But its focus is less on addressing systemic failures or advocating for sweeping policy change than simply showing the incalculable toll that the dispossession of just one life can take.

Bradley — who became the first Black woman to win the U.S. Documentary prize for directing at Sundance earlier this year — also has a natural star in Sibil, whose ferocious love and determination anchor the film. She's the kind of woman your grandmother would call a pistol: Shrewd, funny, tenacious as hell. Freeing Rob is the fight of her life, and Time does more than bear witness to that; it tells a story as urgent and beautifully human as almost anything on screen this year. A-

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