Fast Food Nation review
Either way you're gonna pay.
Like Mean Girls, Fast Food Nation is a fictional story based upon a factual book (Rosalind Wiseman's Queen Bees and Wannnabe's was a psychological study of teenage girls).
The film is directed and partially written by Richard Linklater, the director of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset among others. His unique style of directing comes through very clearly, as does his realistic dialogue, a strength he used in the aforementioned films. Eric Schlosser, the author of Fast Food Nation is credited as the other scriptwriter, and, to anyone who's read the book, this is obvious.
The film is entirely factual, although the specific characters and events are fiction. In other words, it's as factual as a documentary, but uses a fictionalized approach. This is sometimes detrimental to the natural effect; for instance, in an early scene, set in an advertising board meeting of Mickey's, a fictionalized fast food company, buzz words such as a tweenies (children between the states of toddler and teenager) and heavy users (those who eat fast food four or more times a week, a fact I gleaned from Super Size Me) are used, and, for some reason, at this point, it seems a little weird and out of place, even though that's exactly when the words really would be used. I can't determine exactly what's off about that scene, but something in it jars me.
The film looks at the fast food industry from many different viewpoints, mainly that of Don Anderson, who is in charge of advertising for Mickeys, Amber, a high school student and Mickey's worker, and a group of Mexican immigrants who work at the meat packing plant where Mickeys gets all it's beef.
Amber, played by Ashley Johnson, is very responsible, and is saving up for college. Her boss at Mickeys is already thinking of promoting her to a managerial position, despite the fact she's only seventeen. Having worked in a branch of McDonalds (to my ultimate shame) I know that this isn't uncommon. The fast food industry works hard to make all it's machines and duties entirely idiot proof, so that they are able to hire untrained workers at the minimum wage. Turnover can be very fast, and the commonest workers are those who have little chance of getting a job elsewhere, such as teenagers and illegal immigrants. Restaurant workers start at a young age, and, for those with a good work ethic, and the right sort of attitude, promotion can be swift.
Amber's fellow workmates aren't happy with working in the restaurant, especially since a recent spate of burglaries have been taking place in such restaurants. Feeling resentful over their minimum wages while watching the money piling up in the till, they plot a robbery, something else which is common. Most fast food restaurants are robbed by current or past employees.
When Amber's uncle, Pete (Ethan Hawke, who starred in Before Sunrise and Before Sunset) comes back to town, he tweaks her social conscious. A rebel who was kicked out of college for taking part in a protest, he objects to the industrialisation of America, and to the fact that almost every town has exactly the same stores and restaurants as everywhere else. It is indirectly through his influence that causes Amber to meet a group of teenagers who, similar to her uncle's friends, object to the fast food industry, specifically the cruelty faced by the animals. One of the teenagers is played by Avril Lavigne, in her acting debut, and I have to say, she's not terrible, it would have been easy, and probably tempting, to have her as the main character, due to her fame, but I feel that would have been disastrous. The reason that Ashley Johnson is so good in the role is because she's so unpolished. She's a great actress, and her performance is perfectly natural, especially her relationship with Ethan Hawke's character, Ethan Hawke being a wonderful natural actor. Avril's perfectly dyed hair and expertly applied make-up would have made her less believable. As it is, it's impossible to remember the name of the relatively minor character she played.
Don, the ad man, is someone who's entire job rests on not noticing the problems in the fast food industry, and making sure that no one else does either. Although he begins the film as the focus of the story, he slowly fades out, as it becomes clear that he lacks the qualities necessary to change he status quo, despite his own growing dissatisfaction.
The thread following the Mexican immigrants is perhaps the most disturbing. On arrival in America, they are forced to work in a meat-packing plant, a job which pays well, but can be incredibly dangerous. There are a multitude of stories about people becoming injured, and you just know that something horrible will happen.
These people's illegal status in the US means that they are reliant on others, which leaves them open to blackmail from their superiors, who mostly demand sexual favours from female workers. It also means that there are very little provisions made for their safety, and they have very little rights. When a man eventually is injured on the job, the plant claims that he has drugs in his system, something that means they accept no responsibility for the injury, and won't help with medical expenses or rehire him. For the record, that scene is quite graphic, and very painful. Hiding behind your hands sobbing painful. On that note, there's also some terrible footage of a cow being slaughtered.
One area where the film does lack strength is it's narrative thrust. It seems to build up to some kind of change, and then it suddenly just stops. when it finally releases you from it's spell, you may be shocked to find that almost two hours have passed, but it still seems curiously unfinished.
The point of this is obvious; the film tries to be as true to life as possible, and a tacked on, dramatic ending, which hasn't happened yet in the real world, would detract from the realism of the film. Still, most moviegoers may be left with the feeling that the rug has been swept from under their feet, a feeling akin to trying to walk up one more stair than there actually is in the dark.
Somewhat related to this is the sheer overdose of facts. The important elements of the book are all summarised, and there is scarcely a single conversation which, if you've read it, you won't be able to find an equivalent of in the book.
Surprisingly, the film reminded me, in many ways, of Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth's sci-fi novel, the Space Merchants. That was a book set in a futuristic (for 1952, when the book was first published) world, where advertising and commercialism was far more important than conservationism. 'Consies' are treated much the same as terrorists, or suicide bombers, similar to the punishments Amber's group face if they are caught breaking the Patriot Act (although, as one observes, the most patriotic thing he can think of is to break it). In that world, coffee was an expensive treat, commonly replaced with coffiest, a substitute containing a slightly addictive drug. That world was intended to be fantastical and removed from reality, but the events shown in the film make you wonder about that.
That is the point of the film, however; wonder. It's a shocking and provocative look at the fast food industry, and although I fear some will dismiss it as fiction or exaggeration, hopefully others will realise that it's neither.
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