There’s a scene in Ron Howard’s new “Hillbilly Elegy” that approaches the quiet dignity I wish the rest of the movie had. Glenn Close stands in a doorway. She’s playing Mamaw, the proud Appalachian grandmother of the high schooler who will eventually write the memoir on which the film is based. Mamaw accepts a free dinner from Meals on Wheels. And while it pains her to do so, she asks for more food. The delivery kid blinks, embarrassed. But he bends the rules a little and the two connect over a small but meaningful act of charity.
Depicting the complex realities of poverty — not just its hollowed-out emptiness but attendant emotions of shame and despair — has always been tricky. That’s doubly true for those employed by Hollywood.
Filmmakers in Europe and Asia have stronger track records. Italy has its earthy tradition of neorealism, bringing us midcentury heartbreakers like “Bicycle Thieves” and “Umberto D.” In India, Satyajit Ray made the humane miniatures of his 1950s Apu Trilogy, set just a hair’s breadth away from destitution. Socially committed voices like the British Ken Loach (“I, Daniel Blake”) and the Belgian Dardenne brothers (“Rosetta”) have each won Cannes’s top prize, the Palme d’Or, twice.
But with millions more Americans closer to poverty than there were a year ago and the food lines snaking to the horizon, maybe we should get better at addressing it. Even if theatrical distribution magically rebounds in a post-vaccinated world, money will remain on audiences’ minds, no matter how much escapism and popcorn we’d like to chomp on.
To its lasting credit, Hollywood produced a mythical moment of compassion during the worst days of the Great Depression: a climactic close-up that even decades later remains nuanced and open-ended. Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights” (1931) is a comedy vibrating with economic anxiety. While its iconic hero’s resourcefulness is never seriously in doubt, the Little Tramp looks pretty rough by film’s end — penniless, on the streets, clothes in tatters after a stretch in jail. In the final shot, though, he is seen for what he is by the one he loves; his eyes shine, knowing there can be no more hiding his true identity. Does she love him back? (By extension, do we?) The fade to black on Chaplin’s quivering face is both hopeful and a touch uncertain.
The critic James Agee called it the “highest moment in movies.” But the studios, by and large, didn’t follow Chaplin’s lead. Ultimately, it took the schism of independent cinema, decades later, to open the door to unflinching examinations of poverty that weren’t merely sentimental, reductive or convenient plot devices to be solved in the nick of time. Kelly Reichardt’s “Wendy and Lucy” (2008) plunges us into the brutal quandaries that come with limited means: Do I buy dog food or steal it? Do I get my broken-down car serviced or make do without? Every choice knocks back Wendy, an Alaska-bound loner played by Michelle Williams, a bit, as do the rare instances when she encounters sympathy, an emotion that seems to confuse her. (The Times critic A.O. Scott celebrated the film as a piece of homegrown “neo-neorealism.”)
Like “Wendy and Lucy,” honest movies about subsistence living never prescribe a one-size-fits-all solution. Sometimes they’re not about fixing things. Amid the squalor of Sean Baker’s pastel-tinted “The Florida Project” (2017) and Harmony Korine’s cringe-a-minute “Gummo” (1997), children go about the business of dreaming and playing, inventing their own escapes, not so innocently. A pre-“Hunger Games” Jennifer Lawrence is too young to be saddled with rearing her siblings and finding her missing father but somehow that’s exactly what she does in the Ozarks thriller “Winter’s Bone” (2010) from Debra Granik.
In the forthcoming “Nomadland” (a critical sensation at the fall film festivals), Frances McDormand disappears into the role of Fern, a hardened widow living in her van and traveling from job to job after her Nevada factory town collapses. (She is “houseless, not homeless,” the character insists.) The movie is careful to preserve Fern’s cryptic streak of independence, which sometimes registers to others as frosty. McDormand and the director Chloé Zhao improvised and shot their project with real van-dwelling nomads.
Finding a strain of autonomy or boldness is crucial in elevating a film about poverty — even a modestly budgeted one — from seeming condescending. Michelle Pfeiffer carved out the performance of her career in “Where Is Kyra?” (2018), Andrew Dosunmu’s little-seen indie masterpiece of urban isolation. It’s about an unemployed, divorced Brooklyn woman falling through the cracks of the social safety net. (Kyra is on the cusp of becoming a bag lady.) Her desperation is offset by a willingness to go to scary lengths.
That’s because poverty itself is scary. Financial ruin serves as the subtext of so many classic American horror films, perhaps because monsters are easier to deal with than the real thing. Leatherface and his cannibal clan from “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” (1974) would have no ax to grind if they hadn’t been laid off at the meatpacking plant. The hook-handed stalker of “Candyman” (1992) preys on the downtrodden Chicagoans of the crime-ridden Cabrini-Green housing project, at least before he begins indulging a taste for grad students obsessed with urban legends.
A science-fiction film that pays more than lip service to the plight of the poor is John Carpenter’s sociopolitically inflamed “They Live” (1988), flatly described by the director as a reaction to Reaganomics. Its homeless hero, Nada (Roddy Piper), drifts between construction jobs before donning a pair of special sunglasses that allows him to see the alien (i.e., yuppie) invasion already at hand. According to Piper, who himself experienced homelessness before his pro wrestling career took off, Carpenter offered daily wages to vagrants appearing as extras. He fed them, too.
Partly filmed in a flimsy shantytown that the script calls Justiceville, with the luxe glass towers of downtown Los Angeles gleaming in the distance, “They Live” is subversive on many fronts, notably for bearing witness to sights that some civic leaders would rather erase from the cityscape. Such erasures had happened in the past: Kent MacKenzie’s “The Exiles” (1961) captures L.A.’s Bunker Hill and its small community of working-class Native Americans, who once lived on reservations. Today, the neighborhood’s Victorian buildings and their residents are long gone, paved over by corporate gentrification and racism.
Like a photograph, a film crystallizes pain, traps it in time. In the case of these dramas — along with the finest of them, Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep” (1978) — a universality attaches itself to scenes that anyone struggling will recognize: tense conversations at the kitchen table, fury at a steady stream of disappointments, from car troubles to the sickening monotony of existence. (Burnett’s beaten-down patriarch works in a slaughterhouse.) The camera watches on, a steady companion.
That same documentarylike eye also grabs something serendipitous from the hazy Watts summer air: boys skipping rooftops from building to building. It’s dangerous and crazy — and also euphoric. There is freedom in their leap. The camera tilts down and we see no safety net. Burnett includes the shot for all those reasons and one more: Maybe you can fly away.