26.2 To Life. Credit: Larsen Associates

I’m surely mellowing with age: Last month’s excellent Fremont brought my subconscious desire for a “feel-good” movie to the surface, and this month it’s happening again. The documentary 26.2 to Life (opening at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday, Sept. 22) was shot almost entirely within the walls of Marin County’s San Quentin State Prison, home to more than 3,000 male prisoners — many eager for rehabilitation and a fresh start.

The movie introduces us to a half dozen inmates as they prepare to run in San Quentin’s annual marathon (the film’s title is a reference to the length of the race). Unlike most marathons, however, this one is held on the prison’s quad, where participants run in circles for hours, all the while dodging other inmates enjoying the same space during their recreation period. 

But there are advantages: While running or training, prisoners are allowed to wear their street clothes — and most importantly, as members of the running-focused 1,000 Mile Club, they get to interact and train with outside volunteers. One of those volunteers is former distance runner Frank Ruona, now in his 70s and a coach at San Quentin since 2005. 

Directed by Christine Yoo, 26.2 to Life focuses on three of Ruona’s most eager pupils — Markelle “the Gazelle” Taylor, San Quentin’s marathon record-holder (and recent subject of an article in the New York Times); Tommy, a one-time Nazi serving a 57-year sentence for murder; and Rahsaan, a bookish inmate who — when he isn’t running — works for the prison newspaper. Rahsaan, incidentally, was named after legendary saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk, last seen in this column in 2020.

The three inmates all acknowledge their guilt, while professing to be changed men hoping that judicial reforms and good behavior will help them earn an early release. And the track record is good: As Yoo’s film notes, 45 members of the 1000 Mile Club have been paroled, and not a single one has re-offended.

As California grapples with the challenges of carceral reform, it’s encouraging and inspirational to see that simple measures — like community volunteers giving prisoners the support they need to return to society — can work. And of course, more change may be on the way, with Gov. Newsom planning to transform San Quentin into a rehabilitation facility. Perhaps 26.2 to Life is but the first feel-good documentary about the state’s correctional system. 

Punto de Encuentro. Credit: La Toma

As Berkeley has lost almost all its movie theaters, it’s fallen to other public spaces to fill the cinematic void — including La Peña Cultural Center, which will host a screening of Roberto Baeza’s hybrid docu-drama, Punto de Encuentro (Meeting Point) at 7 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 22. Those expecting a Patricio Guzman-style Battle of Chile historical doc may be disappointed; This is a deeply personal film about how one extended family was affected by the military coup that overthrew Chilean President Salvador Allende in 1973. That coup inspired the creation of La Peña 50 years ago, and this screening marks Punto de Encuentro’s West Coast premiere. 

Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...