Modern life is a nightmare. It’s just a simple fact. Capitalism and corporate greed, thanks to pliant politicians, have made life for the working-class surreal hamster wheels forged in the fires of hell itself with no way out. While films like God Bless America channel working class rage into tales of reasonable men being forced to act unreasonably in the face of an increasingly hostile society, Andrew Adams’ American Meltdown takes a kinder, gentler, sweeter, but no less scathing approach to telling a story about a normal citizen being pushed past the breaking point by the absurdity that is capitalist society.
American Meltdown is the story of Olivia, an interior designer being let go by her firm for 90 days so the firm doesn’t have to pay her benefits. Olivia’s supervisor is superficially (sort of but not really) sympathetic to Olivia’s plight but ultimately doesn’t really seem to care about not only how Olivia is being objectified and reduced to a commodity but also is now in very real dire straits simply because some faceless accountant decided it would be cheaper for her to be let go for three months so they can hire her back for less pay and without benefits. Making things worse, Olivia arrives home to find out her apartment has been broken into. Making things even worse, she is soon denigrated and belittled not just by arriving police officers but also by the super of her building. You can almost feel the rage slowly simmering inside actor Jacki Von Preysing as these two men talk to one another about her as if she’s not even in the room as they openly plot to make this seem like it was her fault. The next day, on an innocuous walk on the beach in an attempt to salvage her life, Olivia meets Mari, a free spirited, freewheeling pickpocket who lives in a van and has utterly rejected the trappings of life, stealing guiltlessly from people she sees as rich parasites to build a nest egg so she can eventually move to another country and be done with this one’s consumerist rat race. Olivia, the meek and mild worker bee who’s spent her entire life playing by the rules and getting nowhere for it, soon finds herself intoxicated with Mari’s devil may care attitude, and a delightful mayhem ensues.
At its heart, American Meltdown is a very effective takedown of capitalism and consumer culture. Time after time, Olivia tries to do the right thing only to be shit upon by those above her, the merciless faceless overlords who press their boots harder upon our neck to extract even more money from us as they grow fat off holding a basic right like shelter hostage from us. It is only when she steps outside acceptable lanes of justice that she finds any sort of real satisfaction with her life. And, while in the end the cops prove to be Olivia’s ally in exacting a holy vengeance against the bourgeoise, there is no pretense as to what their true purpose is: the preservation of the status quo and the protection of property. Case in point: at one point, Mari’s criminal past is revealed. After a good amount of hyping it up by cops it’s revealed she’s guilty of train hopping on federal property and crossing borders, something the cops see as akin to murder. The whole film is an evisceration of something that is a tragically American attitude: that working hard will eventually lift you out of the dredges and you will one day be able to own a part of the American dream. In American Meltdown this idea is quickly revealed to be at best a laughable bit of naivete and at worst a cruel joke played on the working class. Even the ending, as happy and sweet and satisfying and as much of a ‘fuck you’ to the one percent that it may be, is still a cruel reminder that it might take wholly unrealistic circumstances to lift us up out of the cycle of exploitation at the hands the bourgeoise.
American Meltdown is a very sweet film. It is a very hopeful film. It is at times very moving; the emotional core of Olivia and Mari reminded me of Thelma and Louse meets Betty and Rita from Mulholland Drive. Preysing imbues Olivia with an aching vulnerability mixed with a tragic sense of hopelessness. somehow Olivia is still unable to turn her back on a system that has utterly fucked her for her entire adult life, whilst Nicolette Sweeney gives Mari a ‘fuck it all and fuck it no regrets’ attitude that you can’t help but fall in love with. She’s idealistic, sure, but she lives her life for only herself and in the end is the most genuine character in the entire film. Her desire to help Olivia attain that same sense of Siddhartha-esque detachment from the modern world is profoundly endearing.
Equally hopeful and pessimistic, American Meltdown is the cinematic embodiment of forging your own path in life and walking away from the chains we have inadvertently forged at the behest of a society that has little in interest beyond preserving the status quo. I suspect it’s also ruefully self-aware in that no situation like this in real life would ever resolve in the way this movie does, but ultimately that’s okay because it gives us more than a little bit of sugar to help the medicine go down.