As a 23-year-old woman, freshly graduated from USC film school, first-time director Rachel Fleischer took out a loan, bought a camera and took to the streets of L.A. to document homelessness. Fleischer admits that she has always been concerned with the plight of the homeless and wanted to study the problem up close in an effort to understand the causes of homelessness. This film documents four years of Fleischer’s life as she works with several homeless people in places like Compton and North Hollywood.
We meet several people with painful but touching stories, including an addict who works with other homeless addicts even as he continues fighting the demons of his own addiction; a middle-aged banjo player who has been laboring for 25 years to "make it" in Hollywood, all the while living in his car and living off his tips; a mentally handicapped woman dependent on her medication and who, as a young child, suffered terrible abuse at the hands of her father; and a family of four living in squalor in a single hotel room.
While these stories, along with several others, are all compelling, the film falls a little flat as a whole. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, Fleischer fails to generate a great deal of sympathy for these characters. While this reviewer may be accused of cold-heartedness due to this statement, there just wasn’t enough time spent really getting to know each person. Some important questions went unanswered because a great deal of the first section of the film was spent "educating" the audience by enumerating the characteristics of many homeless persons. For example, we get several statistics flashed upon the screen, such as the percent of homeless suffering from alcoholism and/or drug addiction and the number of homeless who are mentally ill. These are classic statistics and added nothing new to the field of study. Time could have been better spent delving into why these people couldn’t help themselves. For instance, Aric loves bluegrass music and has spent a lifetime playing the banjo on the streets of Hollywood. But at one point he tells the camera that he prefers sleeping in his car rather than staying in a shelter. He explains that he would feel like a true failure if he stayed in a shelter, yet he calls Fleischer several times asking to stay at her place when his car is towed by the city. He tries to guilt her into allowing him to stay at her apartment: "I’ve never spent the night in the street, Rachel. The street…" I wanted to know why Aric felt the way he did about shelters. Had he suffered a bad experience previously? We never learn what is at the heart of his opposition to shelters.
The family living in a hotel could have been a fascinating story, but again Fleischer falls short. They are destitute and they, too, call Fleischer asking to borrow money when they can’t afford their rent. But why are both adults out of work? While one parent must take care of the two small children, we never learn why the other is out of work. Are the adults disabled? Do they have criminal records that keep them from obtaining a job? Are jobs that scarce? Ultimately, both adults spend their time idling at home and we never even see an attempt at finding work. When the father finally does obtain a job, it is due to a chance conversation. I might have been more sympathetic if some reason had been provided for the fact that neither parent is employed; as it stands, I have to assume they don’t want to work.
The mentally ill woman is also portrayed in an unsympathetic light. She is shown to be manipulative and much smarter than she might at first seem. Perhaps it is "street smarts" that can only be developed after years of homelessness, but in one scene, the woman’s therapist explains to Fleischer that she needs to allow the woman to make her own decisions so she can learn how to make better ones. In the end, Fleischer goes to her rescue not once but twice, first delivering groceries when the woman calls and tells her she hasn’t eaten in three days and then driving her across town to pick up her medication instead of the allowing the woman to walk to the nearest hospital to pick her prescription up as her therapist suggested.
This leads to the other fatal flaw in the film, which is Fleischer herself. I have no doubt that her heart was in the right place and that she cares a great deal about these people and the homeless problem at large. But a significant portion of the film tells Fleischer’s story about pursuing and then dealing with these homeless characters. This confuses the entire film. Is the story about these homeless people or is the story about Fleischer? Or more accurately, is the story about how Fleischer learns some tough lessons about people and how one can be manipulated. There are several minutes devoted to endless phone messages of the homeless calling and leaving messages for Fleischer. Can she loan them money? Can she pick them up? Can she bring them groceries? Can she come to counsel them? How about a date? There is also an endless scene showing Fleischer’s facial expressions as she grapples with deciding whether to help her homeless friend or allow her to learn by making her own choice. Sadly, Fleischer seems more than a bit naive as she tries to care for these people but to also maintain some professional boundaries.
Technically, the film is very good. Fleischer is an excellent technician and does a fine job with the actual filming, lighting, and sound. The soundtrack is also a strong point of the film. Unfortunately, the story was just a little unfocused and left some important questions unanswered.
If you enjoy documentaries or have an interest in the homeless, you might take a chance on this film. It is being released November first from Breaking Glass Pictures. For more information, go to www.breakingglasspictures.com or www.withoutahomefilm.com.