A Place at the Table
"A Place at the Table" will break your heart. It's just that it may bore you in the process.
Taking up the mantle of films like "Bully," activists/directors Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush have made a documentary that's aimed directly at social change. They want action, they want it now, and they even say as much in the final title cards before the credits (there's no pussyfooting around here.) And with the strength of their argument, it's hard to disagree. They harp on the same points over and over, but with this evidence, it's hard to blame them: our country had nearly eradicated hunger - or, "food insecurity" - in the 1970s. Now 50 million citizens don't know where their next meal is coming from, and the number keeps jumping.
They spend the majority of the film drawing broad strokes that aim to educate; assuming the viewer to be completely ignorant of the situation. In fact, pretty much every section of the film (and there's more than a few disparate, barely connected stands - it's as if it were designed with commercial breaks in mind,) is explained three times. First, we see a woman explaining to us how she has to drive about 50 miles to get fruits and vegetables, because her "urban neighborhood" doesn't have any stores the agriculture business deems worth of sending their 18-wheelers to. Then a congressman explains the same thing in slightly more flowery terms. Then a graph literally draws a picture to explain it to you.
To Jacobson and Silverbush's credit, their film begins to become a portrait of wealth inequality as much as it is one of hunger, and they manage to keep that connection completely in the subtext (it shows they don't have to be heavy handed if they don't want to). The graphs, particularly, are used to illustrate wealth and subsidy distributions - the way the processed food business takes up insane majorities of agriculture subsidies, for example; which leads to potato chip prices dropping while the price of grapes soars beyond what the minimum wage can afford (there's also a lot here about food stamps, and even some on defense spending - there's a clear aim at being comprehensive.)
I admire the restraint in leaving the "bigger picture," the macro to the hunger problem's micro, below the surface. They don't come out and say "Wow, we don't mind putting liquor stores and gun shops in black neighborhoods, but we can't even ship them any bananas?" They don't have to. That's the part of the movie that trusts us to have a brain.
But the surface aesthetics don't trust us to have much of a brain. And few things leave film critics as conflicted as devastating social-issue documentaries. Here's the thing: we all know the formula, and it's becoming a bit transparent. A scattershot collection of stories that displays a major, solvable societal problem through depictions of a number of different people affected. Interspersed graphic interludes display the statistics we're up against. Sappy music tugs on your heartstrings. Shots of street signs ("Y'all Hungry?" above a restaurant,) rendered ironic by the subject at hand. And yes, we end with a link to a website you can visit, and a number you can text to receive more information.
So: is this a painful, heartbreaking depiction of a problem that need not exist? Yes. But is "A Place at the Table," on a stylistic level, any different from the average episode of "Teen Mom"? Not really. Ask yourself: do you go to the movies for essays, or for stories?