It Was a Wonderful Life: Devastating Docu of Women Fallen from Riches to Rags

Dedicated to the “hidden homeless, It Was a Wonderful Life is a devastating, but ultimately unsatisfying, documentary about middle-class women who have fallen from riches to rags.

Narrated by Jodie Foster

Docu deals with a relevant, previously unchronicled problem, but is marred by lack of sharp focus, overly stressed feminist agenda, and mediocre technical credits. Still, timely issue and narration by Jodie Foster should be helpful in showing docu on PBS, video, schools, and other organizations.

Aptly titled, It Was a Wonderful Life, traces the daily lives of half a dozen homeless women, all formerly affluent, as they struggle to survive and find a place for themselves in a discriminatory society ill-equipped to deal with the dark side of the American Dream: Downward mobility.

The group is varied enough in age, ethnicity, and occupational status to make the documentary always interesting to watch. Typically, these women were left destitute by an inequitable divorce settlement, recessionary job market, sudden illness, and bad health insurance policies.

As a category, the women defy society’s image of the homeless: they don’t sleep in refrigerator boxes or street grates, and they are educated, clean, well-dressed–and too proud to receive public handouts. The scenes where the women revisit their old upper-class neighborhoods and plush homes in Malibu or Pacific Palisades are heartbreaking.

It is always interesting to observe these women’s extraordinary strength and creativity. One woman uses her art work as payments for a chiropractor, who treats her back pain, caused by sleeping in a car; another is an industrious law student. Homelessness also brought to the surface some unexpected positive values: incredibly intimate family life, indefatigable fortitude, even humor.

Made by Cinewomen, a nonprofit organization, the first–and better–part of docu provides a compassionate look at each woman: immediate cause for being homeless, survival strategy, refusal to be perceived as victim, and ambition to maintain self-esteem and dignity by fighting societal stigmas.

However, the second, more ideological, part presents its information rather selectively, in a manner that tends to overemphasize the filmmakers’ feminist agenda: irresponsible men walking out on their wives and children, ineffective legal protection for divorced women, inadequate child-support enforcement. All of these factors are, of course, crucial, but they are part of larger, more complex structures that include government and city policies, inefficient bureaucracy, recessionary economy, shrinking marketplace, and social values.

Shot in 16 mms on what seems to be an extremely low budget, production values are average. Jodie’s Foster’s minimal narration, which introduces the women and links their stories, is matter-of fact.