When teenager Danny Caldwell (Estevez) gets arrested for crashing into a police car while driving drunk, his mother, Sandy (Jane Alexander), wants to bail him out and bring him home. However, Frank Caldwell (Sheen) is an old-fashioned disciplinarian and he decides that his son needs to spend a night in jail in order to teach him a lesson. Even though, as a juvenile, Danny is given a private cell, he still snaps when the older inmate in the cell next door starts coming onto him. After smashing the man’s head against the cell bars, Danny picks up a battery charge and is sucked into the system.
While Frank and Sandy struggle to get Danny released from jail, Danny falls deeper and deeper into despair and anger. It’s an overcrowded, busy jail and Danny is often left in isolation for both his safety and the safety of the other prisoners. Even though the warden (Kenneth McMillan) is sympathetic to Danny and can tell that he’s not really a hardened criminal, there’s only so much that he can do for him. Meanwhile, on the outside world, Frank stubbornly refuses to admit that he made a mistake by leaving Danny in jail overnight. When a job opportunity presents itself in another state, the unemployed Frank misses some of Danny’s hearings so that he can interview for it, leaving Danny feeling abandoned all over again.
For obvious reasons, the casting of Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez as father and son works very well in this film. Not only is there the obvious family resemblance but both Sheen and Estevez project the same attitude of anger and resentment towards the world. If Danny has a chip on his shoulder, it’s because he inherited from his father. In The Custody of Strangers does a good job of showing how being imprisoned can often turn someone who made a mistake into a hardened criminal but, even though it’s mostly critical of the criminal justice system, it doesn’t let Frank off the hook either. Frank may say that he was just trying to discipline his son but the film makes clear that what he actually wanted was for jail to do his job as a parent. The results are disastrous and the film ends on a note of ambiguity. After what Danny has been through, it’s clear that he’ll never be the same person again.
Sheen, Alexander, and Estevez all give good performances in In The Custody of Strangers. The only ray of hope that the film offers is the kindly warden and he’s also the film’s biggest flaw because it’s hard to believe that, with everything else going on in the jail, he would have had time to take such a benevolent interest in just one inmate. In real life, Danny Caldwell would have been even more lost than in this movie.