When reporters or filmmakers seek out stories about working-class poverty in America, they often gravitate toward the hardest-luck examples — which are plentiful. A bigger challenge is to make a compelling story out of someone who is just scraping by.
In that spirit, HBO’s observant documentary, “Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life & Times of Katrina Gilbert” (airing Monday and available free online), never seems as though it is waiting around for a financial or medical disaster to befall its subject, a 30-year-old single mother of three young children who works full time in a Chattanooga, Tenn., nursing home for $9.49 an hour.
Nevertheless, the tension is ever-present: Will Gilbert be able to make the monthly rent on her mobile home? Will her soon-to-be-ex husband stay off addictive painkillers and find a job so he can pay child support? Will an injury or a costly car repair derail the progress Gilbert has made in keeping her children safe, sheltered, educated and fed?
This is one of those beautiful and subtly informative films that’s simply about sitting still in the life of its subject (in “Paycheck’s” case, hanging out for nearly a year) and giving in to the come-what-may approach.
Gradually your worries ease as “Paycheck to Paycheck” discards the usual conflict-resolution narrative. The trade-off is that not much happens as Gilbert nobly tries to do her best for daughters Brooklynn, 7, and Lydia, 5 and son Trent, 3.
It’s important to note that one of the film’s executive producers is Maria Shriver, who includes the film as part of her multimedia Shriver Report, an effort to meld news and data about women with social activism. That effort has lately focused on the needs of working mothers who are financially teetering; the Shriver Report estimates there are 42 million such women nationally who provide (or try to) for 28 million children.
“Paycheck to Paycheck” (directed by Shari Cookson and Nick Doob) could easily steer itself into a statistical harangue, but the filmmakers instead remain fascinated by the small details of how Gilbert gets by. What about her makes her like so many other women? And what about her doesn’t? There is no narration; “Paycheck” wants you to use your own powers of observation while visiting Gilbert’s world.
It’s clear right away that she would never make ends meet if it weren’t for the impressive Chambliss Center for Children in Chattanooga, where her children get a lot of TLC and, more important for the younger two, are enrolled in Head Start. Fees at a regular day-care center, Gilbert says, would eat up nearly all her paycheck. (The Chambliss Center, we learn, has a waiting list of more than 200 children in situations similar to the Gilbert family’s.)
Another stroke of luck (as far as the camera sees it), is the presence of Gilbert’s boyfriend, Chris, a gainfully employed and good-humored man who invites Gilbert and her children to live with him.
“Paycheck to Paycheck” is filled with the usual ups and downs: Early on, Gilbert has to sell the family’s new puppy on Craigslist for $40 in cash, which saddens her kids. Eager to get a college degree, Gilbert passes an entrance exam but fails to qualify for financial aid. She is also stoically ignoring a thyroid condition, diagnosed when she was a teenager, as well as a litany of aches and pains for which she has no medical insurance.
A tax-time visit to a strip-mall H&R Block is a boon: On just over $18,000 in yearly income, Gilbert’s tax credits bring back a refund large enough to grant a few wishes. She can pay off her car; have birthday parties for her kids; visit a doctor; spend $87 at a beauty salon to have her hair colored.
“Paycheck to Paycheck” is sometimes bleak and even inert, but it is also occasionally sunshine-dappled, as a viewer realizes that Gilbert’s biggest asset might be her calm, steady optimism. Her children experience plenty of happiness. The residents at the nursing home light up when they see her.
There’s a reason the Shriver Report zeroed in on Gilbert and, beyond this film, a reason why Gilbert was one of the invited guests at the White House last month when President Obama signed an order raising the minimum wage for federal contract workers. Gilbert isn’t a federal contract worker, but she is a cheerful and plainspoken representative for hardworking parents who could use a wage increase and so much else.
If, after watching “Paycheck to Paycheck,” you are driven to help Gilbert or someone like her, the Shriver Report Web site directs you to donate to the nonprofit group that funds the Shriver Report. Hmmm — I was thinking more along of the lines of a Web site where I could buy Gilbert a new set of tires or send her a $200 grocery-store gift card or crowdsource funds for whatever basic need has just presented itself.
Which, in turn, made me think of a more ambitious and experimental idea for a documentary project: Find a working mother and give her whatever the think tanks, policy advocates and labor activists agree she needs to succeed in today’s America. Give her affordable child care, reliable transportation, decent housing, early education, insurance, a living wage, good nutrition — all that stuff progressives say would work best, which requires all that nightmarish socialism that conservatives rail against. Give it all to one woman and then document how it changes her and her children’s lives.
That might sound too much like a documentary version of “Queen for a Day” or “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” or, naively, an arbitrary demand for results. I’m only suggesting that, dating back to WPA photographs, we’ve seen so much of what it looks like when people are barely making it. What if someone as high-minded and well-funded as Maria Shriver broke all the rules of objectivity and produced a documentary that shows us — dollar for dollar — what an ideal world would actually look like for the millions of Katrina Gilberts among us?