Steve Pulaski’s review published on Letterboxd :
America currently inhabits a sad, sad state, but it could be worse, right? That's what we tell ourselves, and it very well could be. But the fact of that matter is that, as of now, it's looking pretty damn bad. The 2008 economic crisis in America will likely be compared to the somber days of The Great Depression, and the unemployment numbers and political meltdowns of recent time will likely etch themselves in there no problem.
The staggering amount of people on unemployment begs a documentarian analysis, and American Winter provides the best one I've seen yet. High on reality, low on statistics, and often emotional, this is 2013's best documentary thus far. It is the third I've seen detailing the poor's struggle in an increasingly complex world, next to Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare and this year's limited/VOD release A Place at the Table. Needless to say that American Winter sores past the goodness of both films into gratifying greatness.
We focus on eight families living in the Portland, Oregon area. The commonality between all these homes is that they are all in desperate need of financial help, and at least one immediate family member is out of work and actively looking for a substitute. While no story is sadder than the next, viewers may find the story of John's story particularly crushing. He is a father of a young boy with down syndrome, who has been out of work for three years and lives on a five-acre ranch he maintains to the best of his ability in order to provide for his kid. Some may find themselves getting teary-eyed when we see Jeannette's predicament. Her husband died an unexpected death not long ago, and her and her eleven-year-old son have been attempting to coddle the wounds, but to no avail. They must resort to living in a public shelter and getting by on a very limited food supply. There is a heart-wrenching scene when Jeannette and her son arrive to a pay-what-you-can Panera store that just closed about an hour ago. The trip to get there was long and unforgiving, and we watch as Jeannette sobs, worrying for her son, who is lying when he says he doesn't need a hot meal in an attempt to make her feel a bit better and not so overwhelmed.
Then there TJ and Tara, a couple with two children who are attempting to keep their head above water when only she works. He was laid off from a well-paying job, and when he finds a new one, faces racial discrimination in attempt to better himself and get by according to plan. When the two sit down on the couch, trying to concoct ways for them to get money, Tara suggests that one of them panhandle. TJ states, "I'm not holding a frickin' sign - yet."
American Winter deals poverty to a privileged person better than any documentary I have yet to see. It illustrates so finely and so honestly how life can go from comfort to calamity in no time, and its surrounding moral is its subjects never thought they'd be in a position where they'd need to collect unemployment. If there's another thing I learned, it's that even throwing all your money into a solid education is no longer a guarantee for success. We see a woman who studied medicine in college and can only go on to make minimum as a medical assistant. She must resort to things like donating plasma and "scrapping" junky appliances just to keep her head above water. As I look at my average GPA, my current resume, and anticipate upcoming ACT results along with fulfilling a goal of obtaining a college degree, I question where I'll even be if I get all of that. It's a frightening reality when success can't even be determined by educational drive; it's beginning to become a world driven on luck and good fortune.
If there's another thing I learned it's that the American Dream is dying a slow and painful death. That was the first note I jotted down within five minutes of seeing this film; I didn't need to see anymore of the picture to know that and foresaw the reality. One couple ominously states that when they consider their own personal dreams, they say, "forget the dreams, how do we make it to tomorrow? That's the dream."
There's one other scene I'd love to mention, concerning a family whose electricity and water has been turned off for days, leaving everyone without option, nourishment, and in total misery. When the couple finally get financial aid and a payment program from the electric company, they come home and turn the lights on, which quickly leads to shocking and heartfelt emotion. It's amazing how flicking a switch could cause so much happiness and incandescent joy to a family, but the scene proves that you don't know what you have until it's gone.
American Winter is an honest documentary, all too short, but extremely lasting in impact. It has not left my head for five minutes, even hours upon viewing it. It informs that, while there are no doubt people on unemployment who are able-bodied enough to work and exploiting a deeply flawed system, there are a very large number that need the system and need it badly and that's something we simply can't forget. I read an article via Reddit that stated if you have ten dollars in your pocket and no debt at all, you are better off than 75% of Americans. How long before that amount of money lessens and that percentage increases?
NOTE: American Winter premiered on HBO in March and will air throughout the remainder of the month and into April on the network in addition. This is your second must-see film event of the year behind Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers. Clear your schedules.
Directed by: Joe and Harry Gantz.