A great documentary should leave the audience feeling something. Whether the feeling is anger, fascination, amazement, motivation or some other strange combination of emotional responses, a documentary should stir its viewers.
So why does "A Place at the Table" fall so flat in that regard?
It has a topic – the epidemic of hunger quietly haunting America – that is commendable, potent and relatable enough to elicit some sort of response. But even with The Civil Wars and T. Bone Burnett plinking and harmonizing in the background, celebrity appearances by Jeff Bridges and "Top Chef" head judge Tom Colicchio, and three separate stories about real families with adorable children fighting for survival, the documentary never hits the audience’s gut. It’s a soft approach that doesn’t provide the argument its topic deserves.
Directors Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush follow several small-town American families as they attempt to survive on miniscule budgets, normally about $3 a day for food. Unfortunately, that’s not enough for full, balanced meals, and in poor small cities, well-stocked grocery stores are hard to find. Thus, they’re mostly forced to purchase processed junk, canned or boxed dinners and salty snacks, none of which provide the nutrients needed for their growing children.
Intertwined with these glimpses of real-life hunger are interviews with celebrities and talking heads. They provide bits of information and stats about obesity, food insecurity and how our nation went from almost curing the problem of hunger to having it explode to new highs.
If "A Place at the Table" is to be believed, there is plenty of blame to go around. Farming subsidies place a higher demand and monetary value on crops used for processed junk foods and drinks rather than fresh foods. Schools don’t have the funding to dish out quality, healthy meals for their students. A recent bill barely added a couple of cents to the amount spent per plate.
America may have seen a rise in food banks and charities, but as one interview subject notes, "we don’t fund defense with charity." Plus, many food banks have minimal resources and are stuck giving out snacks and other unhealthy products. The government does little to help, as one parent tries to make the leap from living on food stamps to surviving with a low-income job. The job actually makes things worse, as she has less money to spend on food per day without any aid coming to help.
Jacobson and Silverbush aim far more for pathos than logos. As a result, their informational sections feel like information dumps, bringing up a lot of issues and topics – such as the effect of hunger on young developing minds – without really going into depth on any of them. Plus, the hard stats are delivered with cute little animations and graphics that tend to undermine the urgency and staggeringly sad reality of their numbers. It’s all too pleasant or briefly glimpsed to cause much of an outrage.
The scattered organization stretches into the family storylines. Though it seems like we spent a lot of time with our beleaguered families, there’s never a real connection to these characters or their serious problems. The directors spent so much time flipping back and forth between families, plotlines, interviews and statistics that they all blend into one big easily digested but instantly forgettable message.
Jacobson and Silverbush have a great topic here, one that deserves attention. Bridges isn’t wrong when he says that America is "in denial" about the hunger issue. There’s a lot of material to work with, but "A Place at the Table" feels like a fairly soft, surface-level look into it all. It’s a mild appetizer for a far more hearty and satisfying main course that will hopefully come down the line.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.