First, let us confront one of the great truths of cinema that people don't typically like to talk about: the way you see a film has a significant influence on its effect. I don't just mean "big room in the dark" vs. "on TV"; print quality, the seat you're in, the speakers used for the audio, the number of people you're watching with, what you ate beforehand, so on and so forth, these have an important and undeniable affect on the movie, and this is why film-viewing is ultimately such a subjective experience. Being that film is art, it must be subjective, so this is of course a good thing.
I bring this up because of the particular situation in which I saw James Scurlock's 2006 documentary Maxed Out: in a not-so-large screening room, projected from a 4:3 DVD that was just a touch too bright, so that the letterboxed bars at the top and bottom of the image were very clearly charcoal grey compared to the black on either side, and whose 720 x 480 pixel resolution was not quite up to the task of keeping the intertitles crisp and clean after they had been blown-up. It was the best way I can imagine to see this film.
There's been an extremely strong link between lo-fi recording and passionate indignation for years, most famously embodied by punk rock but extant at least as early as the 1950s. I doubt very much that Scurlock was aiming for precisely this linkage, but he stumbled across it nonetheless, and so his very angry documentary looks very cheaply made, and that tends only to increase the degree to which it is very angry. I have no idea if every screening of the film is as barbaric as mine was, but I can certainly hope so. Meanwhile, a caveat overlays everything I have to say about the film: my experience was subjective and possibly unique, and the Maxed Out that you might see is not the Maxed Out that I saw.
What I saw was one of the most effective of the many recent agitprop documentaries, although such a statement must acknowledge how screechy and inane such documentaries typically are. Maxed Out does it's fair share of screeching, but only after it builds a fairly strong foundation. It helps as well that the film isn't meant to harangue the audience to a certain political position; rather, it's a project out of the old school, a presentation of facts and figures, with lots of human beings illustrating what those figures mean. And that's all. This is more Super Size Me than Fahrenheit 9/11: no call to action, just the statement that this is the world is right now. And in Scurlock's view, the world is pretty screwed up.
Now I'm halfway through the review, I suppose I ought to mention what the film treats upon: the credit card industry in America, and the specific ways in which banks make themselves extra-tempting and extra-damaging to the easily-impoverished members of the lower-middle class. It is a collection of endless horror stories about debt, debt that drives us to take on increasing amounts of debt to pay it off, debt that puts our entire national economy at risk, debt that (in a pair of scenes that made me cry, and that's rule number one: if a movie makes me cry, it's done something right) drives people to suicide. Intercut with these stories are the joking justifications of the credit card people and the collection agents who talk with glee about the rush that comes with getting a payment.
It's all fatalistic and unbearable, and the not-infrequent jabs of humor are as black as black can be, particularly the sardonic use of a vintage black-and-white educational short on the sensible use of credit. But it has to be: Scurlock wants to scare us silly, and four centuries of Puritanism have taught us that nothing works quite as well as chasing the sin out of an audience as a rip-snorting fire & brimstone rant. The director is unmistakably a secular liberal, but he certainly paints a vivid portrait of Hell. I, for one, made an immediate resolution to destroy my fairly modest collection of credit cards.
There are a handful of distinct missteps. The biggest is his rather complete ignorance of personal accountability. I'm not arguing that any of these people deserved debt and poverty, for God's sake, and the film does a pretty great job of arguing that banks go a long way to entice people down the garden path of high interest rates, but it's still the easiest way to attack the film from a conservative or libertarian perspective, and it would have been wise to inoculate against that. Also, the film is clumsily structured: with a huge cast of interviewees, their had to be a reasonable way to jump between them, but there's not usually much of a reason behind Scurlock's editing, which makes a really brilliant sequence, such as the crosscutting between a particularly obnoxious collection agent and the children of a women who ran away after her debt came out, all the more amazing, and one becomes quickly frustrated that there isn't more like it in the film.
And of course, some people will argue that the cheapness of the film is a liability, that it's hard to look at and unprofessional. Not I. To me the film wouldn't be a portion of what it is without that same cheapness. It's the very DIY grittiness of the project that underscores Scurlock's righteous anger and makes the film more of a primal scream than a whimper. Maybe it is unprofessional, at that, but that just makes it all the more a shot from the gut; and right in the gut is exactly where it hits.