Neighborhood Food Drive is an immensely weird movie. Like really weird. Every character seems high as hell, and there’s this tense thriller type of music that goes on in nearly every scene. Also, in so many character interactions, there’s a weird sort of sexual tension or undercurrent that’s never fully realized. So the whole premise feels heightened and surreal, even though all that really happens is these characters talk about running fundraisers and occasionally run an actual fundraiser. Also there are Star Wars-esque ghosts, but really the ghosts are just very pointed metaphors.
Frankly, it’s a pretty damn awesome movie.
It follows Naomi and Madeline, two best friends and business partners, as they attempt to reshape the public image of their very gentrifying and bourgeois restaurant in Chicago. They decide to run a neighborhood food drive. Rounding out the group are two interns and a local college professor, each just as infuriating a character as the last.
I say infuriating because the movie manages to be pointed and tongue-in-cheek about how self-important these characters are by heightening their expression of that self-importance to such an absurd degree. Immediately, you dive into a weird training exercise between Madeline and Naomi and their waiter, Stephen, that ends with the two women caressing Stephen’s shoulders and repeating his name. Jerzy Hill could have easily made this into a light indie comedy about the foibles these oddball characters make as they attempt to reshape their public image. Instead, the movie takes on a dizzying train wreck atmosphere; that is, there’s a certain amount of morbid curiosity in watching just how far these narcissists will go and what ridiculous thing they will say next.
What’s so fabulous about all of it—the movie, these characters, and the story—is that it contains this searing commentary on gentrification and gentrifiers. There’s an interesting point being made about the connection between money, gentrification, and, ultimately, power. Especially power, because so many of these scenes feel as though they’re power plays between the characters. Power, though, comes in many forms, and in the case of Neighborhood Food Drive, this power is very much a power of feeling or of caring. Which isn’t to say, “who is the most empathetic,” for empathy is far too deep an emotion for these characters. It’s more to say, “who can act the most empathetic, who can prove they have the deepest well of feeling for others, who can make others feel the best.” Of course it’s all an act, a self-congratulation in which the different players simultaneously tear each other down and build each other up in order to make themselves feel good, in order to make themselves seem like a good person, because it’s every gentrifier’s worst nightmare to be the villain.
At the center of the whole movie is the maddening relationship between Naomi and Madeline, who seem to have this thriving need to be so pretentiously earnest about everything. Every interaction is a competition for who can be the most honest or smartest, who can do the most seeming good, who can succeed the most and inspire the most, without ever doing any sort of real actual work—emotionally or physically. This earnestness, though, isn’t in the emotional, wear your heart on your sleeve way, but more in the “everything I’m saying is of import because I am of import.”
The cast is truly extraordinary, able to make you loathe these characters but never look away. Of special note is Lyra Hill as Madeline. She’s an amazing actress, and somehow manages to convey this absurd character without ever giving too much into overwhelming seriousness or seeming caricature. Subtle eye movements, the curl of the lip, a slight shudder, she’s an exciting actor able to express such a rich inner life for a character that is frankly meant to be as shallow as possible. For even in this shallowness, Hill is able to find the motivation and feeling of this character. Likewise, Jerzy Rose is an intriguing director—perhaps one part Todd Solondz and one part Wes Anderson, yet in a way that is not derivative but wholly original. The movie’s only weakness is that it is a little too soft on gentrifiers and gentrification, viewing them as absurd features of a modern capitalist society without ever commenting on the real-world and severe repercussions they can have on lower-income communities and communities of color.
Yet still, Neighborhood Food Drive is a pertinent social commentary full of genuine hilarity and frank shock, and Jerzy Rose made it work so effectively—along with fellow screenwriters Halle Butler and Mike Lopez. Throughout, you’re not sure whether to break down laughing or sit mouth agape. When you think a moment of pity or true empathy will come out, Rose brings you in the complete opposite direction further alienating you from these characters, in which there is perhaps only one truly sympathetic figure. In one particular scene, Madeline and Naomi sit down with an NPR-like radio host and the food critic who criticized their restaurant, but instead of Madeline and Naomi getting their due, the radio host and the critic both are just as painfully full of self-importance. It culminates with a pseudo-intellectual discussion on the wise importance of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
This sort of alienating, dark humor energy builds from the very beginning until the conclusion, which consists of perhaps the movie’s most realistic moment and one that will be bitterly familiar to those who have lived in areas suffering from rapid gentrification. The scene and the whole movie is an apt lesson that sometimes knowing someone better is not the key to liking them. For to know these upper-class gentrifiers is to actually make you loathe them even more.
Neighborhood Food Drive
dir. Jerzy Rose