Films that aren’t intended to be documentary, but very well could be, are the ones that seem to hit home the hardest. And quite literally, as is the case in filmmaker Ramin Bahrani’s latest film, “99 Homes.”
Swampy and populated Florida is the backdrop of Dennis Nash’s struggle. Nash, played by a convincing Andrew Garfield, is drowning in debt during the aftermath of the housing crisis of 2008. The young single father is the primary breadwinner for his son and resilient mother (Laura Dern), who live in their family home.
With the construction industry dried up in the midst of a recession, the family is forced to face a fate many have experienced in this country: eviction. The home, like many others in the area, is foreclosed upon and taken over by the formidable realtor-broker Rick Carver, played by Oscar-nominated actor Michael Shannon.
Carver cruelly slinks in and out of the lives of families in the film, taking homes and flipping them for profit. Nash, unable to find a job and eager to get his family back in the home, is offered work from Carver. “America doesn’t bail out losers,” he says to Nash — a line that sums up the character’s gruff and greed. Nash’s desperation is the catalyst for manipulation, and Carver puts him to work foreclosing on other homes in the Florida community.
Nash is consumed by the guilt of becoming the face that causes so much grief, and the intensity of that internalized grief is played magnificently by Garfield. His character’s trajectory, beginning with compassion and transforming into a blind pursuit of wealth, impacts his relationship with family, friends and himself.
But beyond that, the reaction of families facing foreclosure brings about a visceral connection to the struggle of working-class Americans. Some react in threatening ways, others with emotion. Children watch their parents helplessly as stability becomes threatened. To them, a home means everything. To Carver, “They’re boxes. What matters is how many you’ve got.” The repetitive nature of the scenes in the film only accentuates the harsh realities of the situation beyond the screen.
Bahrani, who also directed “Chop Shop” and “Man Push Cart,” is not one to shy away from tackling crisis through his work. The American-Iranian writer/director’s latest offering continues his habit of using art and cinema to understand human struggles across the country. From editing styles to lighting, the film manages to remain raw and unfiltered in emotion. Although set in Florida, the film was actually shot in New Orleans using many non-actors, which only provides a deeper level of authenticity.
While the film is fictional, it provides a refreshingly truistic glimpse into the effects of greed and power — and the deceptive actions that play key roles behind the scenes. The coveted American Dream constitutes accessibility to secure shelter … a place to call home. The real trauma occurs when that is lost.
Florida had the highest rate of foreclosed homes in the nation during the height of the housing crisis — 305,766 properties at some point of the foreclosure spectrum according to the Florida Legislature Office of Economic and Demographic Research. According to RealtyTrac, a housing database, King County has over 4,000 homes in foreclosure.
Statistics can get lost without a tangible story and real emotions, and “99 Homes” manages to represent that fight. This film opens up questions of accessible and affordable housing that we in Seattle are facing now and puts realistic stories on the table.
It’s an unapologetic and timely look at the harsh realities of cross-class connections, income inequality and the housing crisis happening now across much of America.