Juan Carlos Castro is a victim who never deserved it, a man-child who inflicted his pain onto others just as innocent as he. Like most teenagers, he acts selfishly and impulsively. Like many criminals, he's not sure why he does what he does _ and is even less certain about remorse and redemption.
Cold yet prone to crying, obstinate while ambitious, Castro could be any juvenile offender, anywhere. Tonight, the Tampa teenrepresents them all in CBS's Before Your Eyes, a jarring real-life documentary that follows Juan's tumultuous life for a year and a half, off the streets, into boot camp, through a suburban high school, and back into his personal purgatory.
What's remarkable about the program is what you won't see. No well-dressed correspondent purposely evoking emotion. No expert interviews designed to sway opinion.
Tough as it must be, the Before Your Eyes producers stick behind the cameras while Juan and his lifemates _ cops, foster families, thugs _ show and tell a naturally dramatic story as it unfolds, letting viewers' rage and hope rise and fall along the way.
Few issues inspire as much venom and political posturing as juvenile injustice, and Juan is certainly no poster boy. At 7, he was found living in a car with three other youngsters, begging for survival. By 14, he'd become a master criminal, stealing cars, selling drugs, doing "what you got to do."
A father of two by 15, he abandons his children just like his own parents, a prostitute addict and a drug dealer, did.
Through a special Hillsborough County program, Juan earns a last chance: A trip to a boot camp, where he experiences rules and discipline for the first time.
"When I look at this kid, my heart breaks," says the camp's commander, breaking his own tough exterior with a stream of tears. "He must have cried at some time, only his mom didn't come. Who put this kid to bed at night? When he got hungry who fed him?"
Moving as it is, the true-life format keeps the Before Your Eyes special from wallowing. Both the commander and the foster father are up-from-the-projects success stories who prove daily that Juan can't blame fate for all his problems.
By the time of his release from boot camp, Juan reads at the college level and talks of becoming a lawyer.
Yet with all the support in the world, weakness, greed _ and history _ lure him back to bad habits. If the documentary preaches any sermon, it's from the popular pulpit of encouraging personal responsibility _ by parents and teens.
Juan's struggle to conform and reform rivals any drama, prime-time soap or big-screen movie can deliver. It should serve notice to traditional newsmagazines that sometimes _ maybe lots of times _ regular people can tell a better story than high-priced, glamorous talking heads.
Before Your Eyes: One Last Chance (9 p.m., WTSP-Ch. 10)