A dark, honest look at the life of homeless, without being too preachy. An incredible feature debut.
Homeless (Dances With Films Review)
Homelessness is a somewhat overlooked issue in America. While citizens seem to be completely knowledgeable about the overwhelming percentage of homeless people in foreign countries, many seem to have their blinders on in our own backyards. The feature debut of director Clay Riley Hassler, Homeless, explores this issue with a heartbreaking honesty.
After his father is sent to jail and his grandmother passes away, teenager Gosh (Michael McDowell) is unable to pay rent, and forced out on the streets. With only the clothes on his back and his iPod, Gosh checks himself into a local shelter. Far and away the youngest resident, the teenager isn’t exactly embraced with open arms by the other men in the facility, and his attempts to make amends with his incarcerated father fall flat. After befriending a middle-aged mother, Tina (Julie Dunagan), who helps him get a job at the Chinese restaurant she works at, things begin looking up for Gosh. But as many of us can attest, life can be horribly cruel, and Gosh is forced to learn some truly disturbing facts about the depressing nature of humanity.
Almost documentary-like in its realism and technical approach, Homeless is a real slice-of-life movie. Utilizing naturalistic dialogue and non-actors, Hassler provides a truly accurate depiction of not only homelessness, but also of the Winston Salem area of North Carolina. Many filmmakers completely fumble while trying to depict life in the south. But here Hassler succeeds. The characters feel authentic, and certainly southern, but nobody talks like Foghorn Leghorn, or participates in outdated, stereotypical pastimes.
Technically sound while still maintaining a DIY vibe, the filmmakers cast actual homeless people and filmed inside of an actual homeless shelter to achieve a sense of realism. As one would expect, it works phenomenally. You truly get a sense of what living in a shelter is like, as opposed to the somewhat romanticized portrayal in other films with a similar subject matter. There are rules, there are problems, and there’s even more of a soul-crushing aesthetic than you might expect. Early on, Homeless feels as much like a movie about life in jail than on the streets due to the sense of pseudo-isolation and hopelessness. With wintry, cool cinematography, and sullen environments, Homeless has a look and feel that really drags you into the world in which it is set, whether you’re comfortable there or not.
As a non-actor in his first film role, Michael McDowell delivers an unbelievably sharp performance as a reserved teenager whose once vibrant goals have been crushed by the harsh reality of his predicament. Despite having relatively little dialogue, McDowell brings Gosh to life in the subtlest of ways, and it’s absolutely fascinating to see the actor (and it’s completely appropriate to call him that) go to work. Similarly, Julie Dunagan feels like a true and honest resident of the American southeast; a kindhearted mother who is forced to make difficult decisions in a time of struggle. And all the characters are that complex. They’re generally good people who are placed in situations that compel them to commit evil, and that’s where some of the best dramatic moments of all are born.
Despite its extremely on-the-nose title, Homeless provides a dark, honest look at the life of homeless, without feeling cheesy or preachy. If this were a Hallmark production, we know it’d end with a family of rich, kindhearted socialites adopting the needy teenager. But Homeless isn’t a Hallmark production. It’s unflinchingly bleak, but still manages to avoid becoming a tale of cynicism, as we stay hesitantly hopeful for the future from start to finish. Fans of dark dramas, character pieces, and mumblecore-style films are sure to be enamored by Homeless; a successful debut from a director to watch in Clay Hassler.