Economic Turmoil in Film

Pink slips and foreclosure notices. A few years ago, they seemed like some distant reality, something other people faced, people we didn’t know. Increasingly, though, the threat of job loss and foreclosure touches us all in some way. If we aren’t personally facing these issues, a family member, friend, or neighbor likely is.

Film reflects our times, and it’s no surprise that independent filmmakers are turning an eye to the current economy for material. But whether it’s this recession or past financial woes, the themes remain the same: sacrifice, determination, hope, and the resilience of the human spirit.

Here are a few current films that take an often inspiring look at the recession, and how people deal with economic turmoil.


How did our economy get into the mess it’s in today? Writer and director Patrick Creadon, along with co-writer Christine O’Malley, explore the issues in I.O.U.S.A. The film follows former U.S. Comptroller General David M. Walker (now president of The Peter G. Peterson Foundation) and Robert Bixby, executive director of The Concord Coalition, as they try to alert Americans to the supposed dangers of our spendthrift ways, both as a nation and as individuals. Walker and Bixby contend that the nation is burdened with an ever-expanding government and military, overextended entitlement programs, increasing international competition, and foreign debt that the country cannot pay. According to them, America simply cannot continue along its current course without suffering “catastrophic consequences.”

The film’s message is simple, and is literally spelled out at the end of the movie: Americans need to take responsibility for their own and their government’s finances. Also:

• Demand budget control in your house and the White House as well as reform taxes, social security, Medicare and healthcare.
• Save. Don’t buy what you can’t afford.
• Conserve energy to decrease our reliance on foreign oil.
• Ignore political promises that sound too good to be true.

Ultimately, the film offers hope. Our economic future, according to Creadon, is in our own wallets and hands, if we chose to act now. The longer we wait, the harder it will be to find a solution.

Maxed Out

Maxed Out: Hard Times, Easy Credit, and the Era of Predatory Lenders picks up where I.O.U.S.A. leaves off. According to writer and director, James D. Scurlock, the United States is no longer the world’s wealthiest nation — in fact, it is “crumbling beneath a staggering burden of individual and government debt.” In the film, Scurlock lays bare the modern financial industry, showing how credit card companies prey on those already burdened by too much debt and drive many people to financial ruin and despair. Some are even pushed to suicide.

While Maxed Out doesn’t offer the hope that I.O.U.S.A. does, the documentary does draw attention to a key component of our economic woes. According to the film, we as a nation have become a two-tiered society of those who live debt-free and those who live paycheck to paycheck with the latter have difficulty enduring even the smallest blip in their finances, let alone the major hardships such as job loss, illness, and other life-changing events. Scurlock shows just how much credit costs us and how it impacts our economy.

The Recess Ends

A cross-country road trip seemed like exactly what Austin Chu needed after losing his job, but as he planned the trip, he realized “something was going on,” economically, across America. Enlisting the help of his younger brother, Brian, the then 25-year-old set out to document how the economy was affecting the average person in all 50 states. With no budget and no agenda, they relied on the hospitality of others and let their experiences and interactions shape the tone of the film.

The Recess Ends delivers a shocking look at how strongly communities have been affected by national issues such as the housing crisis and international trade, but at the same time, it offers a message of hope. Money isn’t everything, as the old adage goes, and the film points out that true riches lie in a sense of community and in family, friends, and neighbors. “I feel like the richest person I know,” says Austin, who is once again employed.

Where God Left His Shoes

This drama by writer and director Salvatore Stabile echoes the sentiments of The Recess Ends. Scratched from the upcoming fight he is relying on for income, Frank Diaz (John Leguizamo) struggles to support his wife Angela (Leonor Varela) and their two children, but they are eventually evicted. After living for several months in a homeless shelter, the Diaz family has an opportunity to move into a housing project apartment that night, Christmas Eve, but first, Frank must show that he has a job “on the books.” While Angela takes their feverish daughter to the clinic, Frank and his 10-year-old stepson Justin (David Castro) scour the city, looking for work.

Life has undeniably dealt Frank hard blows, and his bad luck just seems to compound. Throughout the film, the sympathetic father of his “off the books” employer tries to track him down to give the family “a break,” but to no avail. Even when Frank finally does land a job painting classrooms, a background check reveals a prior felony, and he loses the work before he can even begin. But, Frank’s perseverance is only part of the story. Where God Left His Shoes shows that even in our darkest times, true wealth comes from having those that we love around us.

Wendy and Lucy

Wendy and Lucy presents a slightly different take on a similar situation. Sometimes, when life is tough, we’re called upon to make sacrifices that pull us away from the ones we love. Written by Jonathan Raymond and directed by Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy), the film tells the story of a young woman driving from Indiana to Alaska, where she hopes to find work. When her car breaks down, Wendy (Michelle Williams) leaves her beloved dog, Lucy, tied in front of the grocery store while she shoplifts their breakfast. She is caught and forced to abandon Lucy. After her release, Wendy searches for her dog as she faces one financial setback after another.

Raymond’s film takes a realistic look at life without a safety net. As the security guard (Walter Dalton) who befriends Wendy points out, “You need a job to get a job and an address to get an address.”

Entry Level

Entry Level takes a lighter look at economic woes. When construction to fix a broken water main drives away customers, chef Clay McGuire (D.B. Sweeney) loses his restaurant. Abandoning the profession he once loved, he turns to the corporate world, thinking he’ll be able to secure a middle management position in a few weeks. Instead, he winds up competing with 20-year-olds for entry-level positions and questioning what he was meant to do with his life.

In the film, Clay eventually learns that the corporate world is no safer than self-employment. His friend, Nick, offers a piece of advice that resonates as the movie’s theme: “We can’t steer the world, Clay. Just sometimes, if we’re lucky, we can steer ourselves.”s

The King of Kong

What do you do if you lose your job on the day you sign the papers on your new house? If you’re Steve Wiebe, you set your sights on breaking the record score for the classic arcade game, Donkey Kong. In The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, director Seth Gordon documents Wiebe’s attempt to beat Billy Mitchell’s 1982 Donkey Kong score of 874,300. Early in the film, Wiebe scores over 1,000,000 — despites his son’s cries, “Dad! Wipe…my…butt!” — only to have the score officially discounted because of a questionable motherboard in the game system Wiebe used. The remainder of the film chronicles Wiebe’s efforts to redeem himself, and the gaming world’s reactions.

Unlike many affected by unemployment, the Wiebes manage to keep their home and maintain their lifestyle. While his wife works, Steve Wiebe returns to school and, within a year, is teaching 7th and 8th grade science. Losing his job was an opportunity for Wiebe to assess his goals and accomplishments and follow his passion, something we should all do, even if that passion is Donkey Kong.

Continue the conversation by suggesting other recession-themed films in our comment section below.

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