In the shadow of Shea Stadium, a street urchin ekes out a living doing odd jobs at an auto-body shop. Further north, a dollar-store worker resorts to smuggling immigrants across the U.S.-Canada border to supplement her income. In the Mississippi Delta, a single mother tries to keep her family afloat tending a convenience store on a desolate stretch of road. Across the continent, a drifter and her dog linger in a small Oregon town after her car stalls and she can't afford to have it fixed.
Scenes from the precarious economic moment? They are, in fact, plotlines from some of 2008's best movies. Last week, the academy recognized Courtney Hunt's Frozen River, a downbeat chronicle of a woman on the economic periphery, with nominations for lead actress Melissa Leo and Hunt's own script. But it was hardly the only American indie to tap into the dismal zeitgeist. Other homegrown films from last year—Chop Shop, Ballast, and Wendy and Lucy—fixed a steady gaze on American poverty. Delving into the lived experience of the poor, these "recession indies" offer a corrective for a culture in which the poor are usually invisible, both in real life and at the movies. It's a welcome change in an indie landscape that has recently been dominated by the solipsistic likes of Napoleon Dynamite, Garden State, and Juno.
In Ramin Bahrani's Chop Shop, the protagonist is Alejandro, a 12-year-old Latino orphan who calls a junkyard swathe of Queens home. When he's not slaving away at a garage, he's working the streets peddling bootleg DVDs. His dream is heartbreakingly pathetic: to buy and fix up a broken-down food truck—a venture that, once we get a glimpse of the battered truck, has "bad idea" written all over it.
A stoic lament for a dream deferred, Chop Shop builds on the achievements of Bahrani's previous film, Man Push Cart, a stark study of a Pakistani food-cart vendor in Manhattan. Bahrani may stack the deck by making a likable, hardworking kid his protagonist, but his movie is resolutely unsentimental. Like the other recession indies, Chop Shop isn't interested in agitprop. The mode is ethnographic. Bahrani renders an outer-borough subculture with unblinking detachment, refusing to judge or lecture. Moral epiphanies unfold organically. When the camera leaves the dingy streets for a scene at the U.S. Open nearby—where a desperate Alejandro, surrounded by a glittering crowd, ponders his first purse-snatching—the effect is powerful. At that moment, Ale seems to have walked out of his reality and into the audience's, implicating us in his marginalization.
Ballast, the stunning debut film by Lance Hammer, shares similar qualities. Like Chop Shop, Ballast bears the hallmarks of Italian neorealism: nonprofessional actors, location shooting, no score, a rejection of artifice. Set in rural Mississippi in the bleak midwinter, the story centers on a fractured family: Lawrence (Michael J. Smith Jr.), an African-American man who runs a convenience store with his twin brother; Marlee (Tarra Riggs), his estranged sister-in-law; and James (JimMyron Ross), Marlee's 12-year-old son. The three are brought together when Lawrence's brother commits suicide—and Lawrence tries, and fails, to follow suit.
The movie is matter-of-fact in its depiction of rural poverty. Lawrence's house is bare and dim. Marlee's days are stretched thin by a long commute and an exhausting job as a janitor. Shot handheld and opting for ellipses over exposition, only once does Ballast go too far: a shot of Marlee scrubbing a urinal at her job that puts too fine a point on her plight. But elsewhere Hammer is restrained, observing life on the margins as it's lived without the condescension of false redemption.
More conventional but no less attuned to everyday life is Hunt's Frozen River. Leo plays Ray Eddy, a woman who wakes up one morning to find her husband and the money she had been saving to buy a prefab home gone. Stuck with a dead-end job at Yankee Dollar and desperate to make the payment for the double-wide trailer, Ray turns to smuggling immigrants in the trunk of her car across the U.S.-Canada border, with the help of a Mohawk woman who lives on a nearby reservation. Meanwhile, back home are her two kids, left to fend for themselves while Mom tries to make ends meet.