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Maxed Out

Studio: Truly Indie
Directed by James Scurlock

Mar 31, 2007 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

In James Scurlock’s alarming documentary Maxed Out, an investigation into the plague that is American debt, the director interjects clips from a stodgy black-and-white educational film to illustrate how dramatically the credit industry in the United States has changed over the last 50 years. A well-combed high-schooler enthusiastically tells a bank manager, “There’s sure a lot of things I’d like to buy for better living,” before asking, “How ‘bout giving me a little credit?” To this, the banker responds condescendingly, “Nobody gives you credit, John. It’s something you have to earn.”

The snippet sets up a mother’s story of how she and her husband were denied credit in 1972 despite both having 40-hour-a-week jobs, yet 25 years later, her daughter, a college freshman with a 12-hour-a-week part-time job, was issued three credit cards over a short time. Maxed Out is filled with startling ironies and dirty secrets, and if there’s one point the film hammers home better than any other, it’s that banks love borrowers who can’t afford to make their payments on time.

The argument that no one is forcing Americans to spend more money than they have is valid, but Maxed Outexplores how profitable it is for banks when people dig themselves into holes, and the director draws a parallel between debt and drug addiction. In a savvy bit of editing, Scurlock incorporates another educational film segment on the dangers of drug use. As the antiquated clip correlates a snake in the wild to drug pushers who mill about schools and prey upon vulnerable students, Scurlock cuts to shots of various credit card application tables strategically placed at universities. The difference, Maxed Out explains, is that universities get paid by credit card companies to set up their product on campus.

Scurlock crossed the country, visiting both big cities and small towns, to hear the absurd and tragic stories of folks whose lives have been damaged by debt. There’s the Mississippi woman and her mentally handicapped 44-year-old son, who were persuaded to give up their low-interest government-subsidized mortgage for a higher-interest CitiFinancial loan in the hopes to pay off credit cards. There’s also the Nashville police officer who served 23 straight months in Iraq, only to find out that private security employees hired by media and construction companies in Iraq earned a higher salary for their work than he did for serving his country, while his wife at home couldn’t afford to make bill payments. Hounded by collectors, fearing the embarrassment of house foreclosure or defeated by the realization that their debts will never be paid off in their lifetime, suicide becomes a real option for these people.

Added to the mix is archival footage of television news stories on America’s own budget crisis, indictments of our last three presidents’ fiscal errs, and footage from the 2005 Consumer Credit Hearings on Capitol Hill, where representatives from the major banks were excused before answering a single question from the Senate Banking Committee. The people who have fallen victim to the abuses of 40% interest rates, credit report inaccuracies and invasive collection agencies aren’t likely to receive sympathy from our government, the film argues. MBNA, the country’s second-largest credit card issuer before being acquired by Bank of America, was Bush’s top campaign contributor for the 2000 election and drafted a bill for bankruptcy reform that was signed by Bush in 2005. According to the film, 90% of credit reports contain inaccuracies because it’s not in the interest of the agencies to correct their errors. However, the credit histories of judges, legislators and actors, or essentially anyone who can make noise to a large base, are given VIP treatment.

The most flamboyant villains in Maxed Out are the debt collectors, who get their kicks in discovering ways to embarrass borrowers into paying off their debts. In one scene a collector compares the competitiveness of his industry to athletics, and their justifications for their actions would be laughable if not for the sad consequences depicted in the film.

As pertinent and moving as Maxed Outis at times, it’s also somewhat of a hodgepodge. Scurlock begins the film by examining our culture’s obsession with the lifestyles of the rich and famous, but ultimately is less interested in identifying where we’re to blame. One question is: How enlightening would this film be to the distraught people in it? For those who have yet to grasp of the dangers of borrowing, there’s little in Maxed Out to warn viewers that they too might be on the road to financial ruin. It’s understandable that Scurlock wouldn’t want to replicate the instructional films he integrates for effect, but a coherent narrative voice to sort out the twisted subject matter might be more cogent than the sound bites of Robin Leach, Louis CK and Jerry Falwell. There are also some questionable soundtrack choices. Is banjo music appropriate for the Mississippi woman and her adult son with a 2nd-grade education? Or Coldplay’s “Trouble” for a woman contemplating suicide? The last thing we should be thinking about in such a wrenching scene is whether princess Apple will benefit from royalty money for use of the song.

Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Warren makes the most salient points in the film, and her scenes sometimes leave you wishing for more. At one point, in addressing our spiraling culture of debt, she asks wide-eyed, “Where’s the exit strategy for this?” The politicians don’t have the answer, but the recent bankruptcies of sub-prime mortgage lending companies—who specialize in loans to high-risk borrowers—and the threat that mounting foreclosures pose to the housing industry are already contested campaign issues for the 2008 election.

Maxed Out is not the rallying cry that An Inconvenient Truth was, but it raises concerns about our future that are just as distressing and urgent.

Author rating: 6/10

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