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Friday, May 17, 2024

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Two tough films focus on the people...

Screen Grabs: Two tough films focus on the people hit hard by economic inequality

Great examinations of working class erosion ('Between Two Worlds') and family opioid addiction ('Stay Awake')

Economic inequality is tough concept for many people to truly grasp—at least without resorting to “Well why don’t they just pull themselves up by their bootsraps?”-type thinking—because those raised in any degree of privilege have a hard time imagining what it’s like to have no safety net. What if you can barely make rent, and everybody you know is in the same boat? If the road to income improvement requires training or education you don’t have the time or money for? If you grew up going to decent schools, never missed a meal save by choice, and always had family or friends who could loan some $$ in a pinch, the world is a much less hostile (not to mention exhausting) place.

In the 1960s, the “War on Poverty” saw no reason why the so-called American Dream shouldn’y be accessible to all, viewing it as a civic duty to boost up those at the bottom. Yet decades since of cost-of-living inflation, wage stagnation and job displacement (by technology, outsourcing, etc.) has accomplished what seemed unimaginable not long ago: Far more people now are downwardly mobile than the opposite. The middle class it seemed nearly everyone could reasonably aspire to is instead ejecting thousands onto the lower economic rungs. Nobody talks about ending poverty anymore, as if that were wholly impossible in the richest nation on Earth. Even approaching narrower subjects like food or housing insecurity usually prompts little more than runaround debates that seldom achieve anything… something we are particularly familiar with in San Francisco.

A couple strong new movies dramatize present-day life among the kinds of citizens who would’ve been solidly working-class a while back—hardly flush, but able to make ends meet on one job’s pay, with decent expectations of their offspring doing a bit better down the road. Now they’re on treadmills of multiple low-end jobs sans benefits for sub-living wages, with little hope of advancement, often further hobbled by institutionalized debts or addictions. They are in that ever-expanding demographic of First World residents for whom “free-market” capitalism has turned predatory, almost feudally so—and whose deprivation fuels the global-economic class of billionaires, with trillionaires expected to become a thing sometime soon.

The French Between Two Worlds, which opens at SF’s Opera Plaza and Marin’s Smith Rafael Film Center this Fri/18, fictionalizes an investigation into such common-man-and-woman straits, one not unlike Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2001 Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting Along in America. Florence Aubenas similarly went “undercover” into the world of temp and menial work for her book The Night Cleaner a decade later. Emmanuel Carrère’s film (which has taken its time getting here—it premiered at Cannes two years ago) is a loose adaptation with Juliette Binoche as Marianne, who shows up in the Normandy region town of Caen needing to start afresh. Having been left by her husband after 23 years, with no resources, no qualifications and no past employment, the best she can hope for is cleaning work. It’s made clear she’ll be lucky even to get that.

These are grueling jobs mostly at odd hours, often in remote locations. One can be fired at any minute, and it is hard for a beginner to get up to speed, given the borderline absurd expediency demands of companies who subcontract the work out to agencies which in turn hire non-staff expected to burn out and turn over rapidly. Nonetheless, Marianne manages to survive (well, after one first-day firing), her ability to cope aided by some kind new neighbors who offer her the loan of a functional clunker car. She uses that windfall to help colleagues with whom she becomes friends, particularly Chrystele (Helene Lambert), a harried 30-ish single mother who works almost incessantly to support three young sons. Chrystele hasn’t had the time to have friends, and she is at first bewildered, then touched by Marianne’s generosity.

As one character here complains, ”There are no real jobs left”—meaning the kind that offer a steady paycheck, normal hours, health insurance, et al. That leaves people like these scrambling for “unstable” ones offering just minimum wage (7-8 Euros/hour) for backbreaking toil. We get the deets on what it’s like to clean corporate bathrooms before dawn, and cross-channel ferries’ passenger compartments in the brief window between runs. Yet even this frequently literal shit work is aspirational for those yet further down the totem pole, i.e. migrants and refugees.

The relationship between hard-boiled, temperamental but loyal Chrystele and Marianne—who’s much older yet seems comparatively carefree, coming up with left-field ideas like “Let’s drive to the beach!”—is the heart of the astute screenplay here, though it’s not played for emotionally manipulative effect. That restraint only heightens the film’s tension, because we know something Chrystele doesn’t: Marianne is no impoverished divorcee, she’s actually a well-known author researching a new book.

Her planned expose of such worker exploitation will do good, surely, perhaps spurring needed reform. But is she, too, exploiting the women whose confidence she’s burrowed into under false pretenses? That question hangs particularly heavy over her interactions with Chrystele, from whom trust is hard-won, and who is unlikely to take well the revelation that she’s been duped by someone who doesn’t have to live this life—who has a safety net, who has options. For her, Marianne descending from a privileged world to sample the deprivation she herself can’t escape may constitute an unforgivable insult.

You can tell almost immediately that Between Two Worlds is going to have a lot to say, and will do so in an admirably no-nonsense fashion that’s empathetic but unsentimental. It’s an engrossing if sometimes discomfiting experience, with note-perfect performances. There’s no reassuring balm at the end; if it were a Hollywood film, you know all class conflict would dissolve in a fadeout of hugs. Carrére is a prominent French author with a somewhat bewilderingly diverse resume, including the scripts for two very good films by the late Claude Miller(Class Trip, I’m Glad My Mother Is Alive). His only prior narrative directorial feature, based on his own novel, was The Moustache almost two decades ago—an enigmatic fantasy-tinged tale far from this one’s docudrama style. He should direct more often.

Another low-key yet potent look at a slipping-down proletariat in microcosm (and also based on a true story) is Jamie Sisley’s narrative debut feature Stay Awake, which opened the San Francisco International Film Festival last year—it was a surprisingly non-“feel-good” choice for that slot—and is now available On Demand after a miniscule theatrical release that skipped the Bay Area.

Examining a 21st-century crisis that’s devastated communities already embattled by economic shifts that have left them behind, it takes place in an unspecified U.S. heartland small town where two sons are shackled to a never-ending crisis at home: Their mother (This Is Us’ Chrissy Metz as Michelle) is an opioid addict who veers between seemingly deliberate overdoses and pretending she doesn’t have a problem.

Derek (Fin Argus) has already been sacrificing his aspirations as an actor to this cycle, working at the local bowling alley and forever riding to mom’s rescue. But younger bro Ethan (Wyatt Oleff), a high school senior, isn’t willing to let her issues limit his future—he’s applied to a college far away, and pushes Michelle to seriously clean up for once. Despite her own ample guilt and shame, however, it’s questionable whether she’s capable of that.

Not as much of a complete downer as that may sound, Stay Awake is both tough and compassionate, a unsensationalized look at the difficulties of recovery in a society that frowns upon addiction, but doesn’t do much to help addicts become ex-addicts.

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