One of the more cutting barbs in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha arrives when its beleaguered ingenue, strapped for cash and eager to bemoan it, complains to her roommate of being poor. “You’re not poor,” he retorts, and anyway, “that’s offensive to actual poor people.” It’s in complaint, perhaps, that privilege most noxiously announces itself, and it’s to Baumbach’s credit that he undermines his hero’s self-pity. We could all probably stand to better recognize the difference between being broke in the sense meant by twentysomething Brooklynites and “actual” poverty. More films with an interest in the latter might be a start.
To this end, Drew Tobia’s new comedy See You Next Tuesday steps in the right direction. Poverty is not so much the subject of the film as it is its animating force, and you can feel its influence coursing through everything. Tobia understands that to be poor is to feel poorness dominate and define you, and he deftly illustrates the sensation, subtle but unceasing, of debt and need gnawing away. His hero is Mona (Eleanore Pienta), a very pregnant twentysomething languishing behind the counter of a discount grocery store checkout, where she endures ridicule and harassment for a measly $8 an hour. Mona lives alone in a shabby flophouse studio that boasts a communal toilet and men who masturbate in the foyer. She has no savings, no friends, and no significant other to speak of. Her mother is a newly recovering addict. And Mona’s baby is due any day.
In other words, Mona is poor enough that you worry two lives may be in danger. But while Tobia doesn’t shy from the volatility of this scenario, he isn’t exactly striving to induce dread. In fact, one of the most refreshing things about See You Next Tuesday is its refusal to regard Mona as a tragic subject to be lamented from a dramatic remove. It’s hardly uncommon, of course, for well-meaning portrayals of economic disadvantage to veer into condescension or, worse, exploitation, but Tobia seems to sidestep this problem by simply not worrying too much about things like sympathy or sensitivity. Penury isn’t treated as an issue that ought to be addressed or worked through; it’s merely a reality Mona has to deal with, as when, quite hilariously, she must contend with the mock-polite interrogations and judgments of a bohemian loft party’s comfortably (and cluelessly) middle-class guests.
See You Next Tuesday proceeds in a chiefly comic register, an unexpected fit for the material, perhaps, but an oddly appropriate one. Tobia approaches comedy in the same way that John Cassavetes did, which is to say that he embraces the absurdity of human behavior at the same time that he recoils from it. The result can sometimes seem trying — as in Faces, the laughs are so abrasive that they hurt. But it’s in this effort to face pain and mock it that See You Next Tuesday approaches its most important truths. This is as much an assault on preconceptions of the pregnant and poor as it is a tacit condemnation of the privilege celebrated so widely in independent cinema. That’s bound to cause some discomfort.