Down and Out, Not in Beverly Hills

Frozen River, Wendy and Lucy, and other great new movies about America’s poor.

Melissa Leo in Frozen River

In the shadow of Shea Stadium, a street urchin ekes out a living doing odd jobs at an auto-body shop. Further north, a dollar-store worker resorts to smuggling immigrants across the U.S.-Canada border to supplement her income. In the Mississippi Delta, a single mother tries to keep her family afloat tending a convenience store on a desolate stretch of road. Across the continent, a drifter and her dog linger in a small Oregon town after her car stalls and she can’t afford to have it fixed.

Scenes from the precarious economic moment? They are, in fact, plotlines from some of 2008’s best movies. Last week, the academy recognized Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River, a downbeat chronicle of a woman on the economic periphery, with nominations for lead actress Melissa Leo and Hunt’s own script. But it was hardly the only American indie to tap into the dismal zeitgeist. Other homegrown films from last year—Chop Shop, Ballast, and Wendy and Lucy—fixed a steady gaze on American poverty. Delving into the lived experience of the poor, these “recession indies” offer a corrective for a culture in which the poor are usually invisible, both in real life and at the movies. It’s a welcome change in an indie landscape that has recently been dominated by the solipsistic likes of Napoleon Dynamite, Garden State, and Juno.

In Ramin Bahrani’s Chop Shop, the protagonist is Alejandro, a 12-year-old Latino orphan who calls a junkyard swathe of Queens home. When he’s not slaving away at a garage, he’s working the streets peddling bootleg DVDs. His dream is heartbreakingly pathetic: to buy and fix up a broken-down food truck—a venture that, once we get a glimpse of the battered truck, has “bad idea” written all over it.

A stoic lament for a dream deferred, Chop Shop builds on the achievements of Bahrani’s previous film, Man Push Cart, a stark study of a Pakistani food-cart vendor in Manhattan. Bahrani may stack the deck by making a likable, hardworking kid his protagonist, but his movie is resolutely unsentimental. Like the other recession indies, Chop Shop isn’t interested in agitprop. The mode is ethnographic. Bahrani renders an outer-borough subculture with unblinking detachment, refusing to judge or lecture. Moral epiphanies unfold organically. When the camera leaves the dingy streets for a scene at the U.S. Open nearby—where a desperate Alejandro, surrounded by a glittering crowd, ponders his first purse-snatching—the effect is powerful. At that moment, Ale seems to have walked out of his reality and into the audience’s, implicating us in his marginalization.

Ballast, the stunning debut film by Lance Hammer, shares similar qualities. Like Chop Shop, Ballast bears the hallmarks of Italian neorealism: nonprofessional actors, location shooting, no score, a rejection of artifice. Set in rural Mississippi in the bleak midwinter, the story centers on a fractured family: Lawrence (Michael J. Smith Jr.), an African-American man who runs a convenience store with his twin brother; Marlee (Tarra Riggs), his estranged sister-in-law; and James (JimMyron Ross), Marlee’s 12-year-old son. The three are brought together when Lawrence’s brother commits suicide—and Lawrence tries, and fails, to follow suit.

The movie is matter-of-fact in its depiction of rural poverty. Lawrence’s house is bare and dim. Marlee’s days are stretched thin by a long commute and an exhausting job as a janitor. Shot handheld and opting for ellipses over exposition, only once does Ballast go too far: a shot of Marlee scrubbing a urinal at her job that puts too fine a point on her plight. But elsewhere Hammer is restrained, observing life on the margins as it’s lived without the condescension of false redemption.

More conventional but no less attuned to everyday life is Hunt’s Frozen River. Leo plays Ray Eddy, a woman who wakes up one morning to find her husband and the money she had been saving to buy a prefab home gone. Stuck with a dead-end job at Yankee Dollar and desperate to make the payment for the double-wide trailer, Ray turns to smuggling immigrants in the trunk of her car across the U.S.-Canada border, with the help of a Mohawk woman who lives on a nearby reservation. Meanwhile, back home are her two kids, left to fend for themselves while Mom tries to make ends meet.

Compared with the other movies, the plot-driven Frozen Riveris less formally adventurous and more accessible (hence, perhaps, the Oscar nominations). But Hunt and Leo nail the details of a life without a safety net. The movie takes place in a succession of drab locales where the downtrodden congregate—trailer homes, bingo parlors, dollar stores. Hunt also enlarges our image of poverty by setting her movie in and around an American Indian reservation in upstate New York, shining a light on perhaps the worst-off—and most frequently forgotten—segment of the American poor.

Part of what makes Ray’s plight at once moving and terrifying is how familiar it is in the current moment. The dread of missing a house payment, the frustration of not making enough at your job: This is what every day looks like for Ray. Leo’s portrait of working-class desperation is bracingly unaffected—she never once plays to the crowd. Her turn underscores a common strength among the movies discussed here: the absence of recognizable stars and the baggage they bring. Leo’s Ray is no Erin Brockovich—the former is a lived-in performance without a hint of vanity; the latter a strenuous, Oscar-baiting act of faux de-glamorization. (True to her character—and her status as a character actress—Leo was both grateful and grounded when she received word of the Oscar nomination: “It’s delightfully surprising. I had no expectations. What does all of this mean? Four letters: W-O-R-K.”)

Michelle Williams, on the other hand, is a star, but the way she disappears into her role in Wendy and Lucy is a marvel. Williams plays Wendy, a drifter on her way to find work in Alaska who gets stranded in a small Oregon town after her car stalls. Strapped for cash, she’s reduced to sleeping in the driver’s seat, returning scavenged cans and bottles for deposits, and shoplifting Iams for her dog, Lucy. Her normally blond hair shorn and dyed brown, Williams looks like a Bressonian pixie. But Wendy and Lucy’s real forefather is Vittorio De Sica, whose Umberto D., about an impoverished pensioner and his dog, remains one of the highlights of Italian neorealism.

That influence notwithstanding, Reichardt’s movie is distinctly American. It invokes one of the great traditions in American cinema—the road movie—but pointedly has the car stall 10 minutes in. Reichardt foregrounds Wendy’s existential dilemma by eschewing back story. For the entire running time, all that matters is what’s in front of Wendy: a broken-down car, a dwindling reserve of cash, and a missing dog. The movie ends with Wendy moving on, carrying even less than the little she already had—an all-too-common feeling for many Americans right now.

Too few to be a trend but too great to be ignored, these socially committed movies suggest, one hopes, a new sobriety and seriousness among American independent filmmakers. But will audiences respond? So far, the signs aren’t encouraging. The four films, combined, have made about $2.5 million, or roughly one-third of Twilight’s opening midnight gross. When Americans do go to movies about the poor, they’re usually set a continent or two away—think of art-house hits City of God, Born Into Brothels, and Slumdog Millionaire. Perhaps bulletins from our own trenches sting too much for domestic audiences. That certainly seemed to be the case for The Wire, arguably the most devastating portrait of the urban poor that audiences have seen in years, which saw its run end in 2008 after five critically acclaimed, poorly rated seasons.

The Wire shares something with these films: They all serve as urgent dispatches on the way we live now. Wendy’s predicament—like Ale’s in Chop Shop, Marlee’s in Ballast, and Ray’s in Frozen River—resembles, if not in its details then certainly in its outlines, what millions of Americans are going through. Immersive and rigorous, these movies depict an experience that is at once common and unseen: the struggle of scratching out a living, or getting by without one.