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.