Counting myself a past denizen of Paris and Austin and a current one of Chicago, I’ve seen a broad range of the deplorable spectrum comprising the existence and experience of the homeless. Consequently, I’ve also developed the calloused eyes and ears of a city dweller, the necessity of keeping yourself from going batshit crazy witnessing the plight of the Latch Key kids of society. Louis C.K. prodded at this ingrained ambivalence in a joke when the agrarian-reared cousin of a friend came to visit New York, saw a homeless man, and asked them if he needed help, to which Louis replied, “Oh yes desperately, he desperately needs your help, but we don’t help him.” His delivery was hysterical, and he completely understood humanity in absentia in the moment, I’m not going to sit here and moralize; when I’m approached by a homeless guy while walking, I stare straight in front of me like the town of Gomorrah is at my side asking me for change. It’s shitty, yes, and I don’t think of myself as a (generally) bad person, but you can’t help everyone and not everyone wants to be helped.
Eleanor Burke and Ron Eyal, a coupled cinematic team, ask how much person is behind the tattered rags and stolen shopping cart in their directoral debut, Stranger Things, the story of a chance encounter between Oona (Bridget Collins), a young woman attempting to restore and sell her mother’s house after her death, and Mani (Adeel Akhtar, Four Lions), a directionless vagrant with shade peppered over his past. The film examines the human experiences of loss and connection, preconceptions against social demographics (i.e. the homeless), and the human capacity for good deeds — all of the correct ingredients to do well amongst the judgmental, pseudo-philanthropic art-house moviegoers and all the right meaningful looks and acts of charity that try to make you feel like an asshole for being skeptical. I’m very suspect of any film incorporating social commentary at the core of its being, and I’m immediately onset by the kitschy nausea of Pay It Forward and any time I’ve ever heard of Julia Roberts doing anything.
The story feels predictable and slow. Almost every scene was riddled with silent rooms, people staring at the walls and occasionally each other, and fractured conversation never really going anywhere: it’s like Drive sans slick Johnny Jewel soundtrack or that really badass jacket Ryan Gosling had. I’m reminded in style, not subject matter, of the Duplass Brothers’ early films; the scripting and the framing fetishize and claw at reality, but the directors tend to forget reality can be really fucking boring if someone interesting isn’t involved and that’s why you want to watch a movie. Oona holds the comportment of a fumbling thirteen year-old scene through scene, just kind of staring, sometimes saying something, and occasionally crying. Mani just sits there and broods the whole time, recalcitrant at questions, all heavy-lidded eyes and a forced mystery persona that I was bored with after 20 minutes. I suppose if there’s a compliment here, it’s that Stranger Things really felt like watching a naïve idealist try to help out a bum for an hour and sixteen minutes.
Yes, I remember the eighteen year-old Poli Sci majors yelling at me about social justice and the wretched conditions faced by the impoverished. It’s not like I’m running up to Jimmy Bob sitting on the corner and slapping a sandwich out of his hand. I understand that I don’t understand the breadth and scope of the homeless experience. I also understand there are people who devote their lives and careers to aiding the homeless who lose all optimism and hate everything. Stranger Things feels like a film created by those Poli Sci majors, a misguided appeal to pathos all with glistening eyes and hopeful expressions. When I get off the El in the Loop on my way to work, I’m still going to wear blinders.