Have you thought about how you’ll manage your retirement once you hit that age? Or how you’ll get to the grocery store when you turn 80-years-old and might no longer be able to operate a vehicle? Have you considered how much food is wasted in the US alone via color and weight standards? Have you ever combined all three thoughts into a single question?
What will you do when your retirement funds and/or Social Security checks only cover rent, and you can’t get around to buy groceries, but you know that there is a surplus of food out there?
Los Angeles-based photographer Sean Hancock’s new documentary Leftovers discusses each of these issues while paving a path to help these vulnerable senior citizens. The most unique aspect of the film is writer-director Hancock himself, as this is his only movie. He appears onscreen and tells the audience that documentaries are usually made by folks with a driving passion for the issue being examined. Therefore Hancock is an odd choice, as he was asked to make this movie by people with greater knowledge and commitment to these problems than himself.
This provides an excellent entry point for the audience, as we learn about all the plights and pitfalls retirees and people on disability go through as he does. The more he gets invested, the more we do. It does also lead to a few problems along the way, though. After the setup and introduction to Sean Hancock, the next twenty or so minutes feel very repetitive. There seems to be a formulaic pattern: find an older person, interview them about how they pay bills, how they get food, and how their health is. It is easy to see why, from a personal standpoint, Hancock wouldn’t want to cut any of these interviews. Each person he connected with, each story he heard personalizes this social issue and deepens his investment, to the point where he does become an activist for elder rights. But as a movie, it makes it slow to start, and its proposed resolutions to the problems at hand don’t become clear until approximately the halfway point.
“…we learn about all the plights and pitfalls retirees and people on disability go through…”
There are two other issues from a narrative flow perspective, both much less bothersome than the one just discussed. The first is a lack of statistical data until the halfway point. During those introductory interviews with the elderly folks, with the head of Meals On Wheels, and the like, they keep discussing how the USA wastes billions of pounds of food a year, or how having a senior center to interact with other people their age has a noticeable, positive mental health impact. Data from studies should have been shown earlier on because it comes across as hyperbolic and unsubstantiated for awhile. The last issue is the ending. Hancock is invited to a panel to discuss elder rights, and he recounts everything the viewer just saw in the film. Moving that section to the beginning, so there is a frame of reference for how much the material inspired someone with no stakes in it at the outset would allow the interviews to breathe easier as there is a personal element for the audience to reference.
About forty minutes in, though, Hancock starts traveling the country to see how similar issues manifest in lower income areas, counties with harsher terrain, and more rural towns. In Texas, he interviews the director of a food bank and goes on a three-hour (one way) trip to deliver food. In Florida, he sits down with the head of the National Council On Aging and then has a chat with the leader of the AARP. In the discussions with these experts and heads of desperately needed services, statistical analysis, data from studies, and concrete proof of what does and doesn’t work finally find their way to the forefront. This makes the last half much more interesting, as one can understand the issues, look at the findings, and see ways to help or fix problems, be they with distribution, access, travel, or both.
While pure and noble intentions can’t always make up for a movie’s shortcomings, in the case of documentaries, especially those highlighting an under-discussed issue, they do go a long way. Leftovers takes a little too long to get going and repeats itself once too often, but, thanks to its charismatic host and earnest commitment to helping people, those problems feel inconsequential.
Leftovers (2017) Directed by Sean Hancock. Written by Sean Hancock. Starring Sean Hancock, Shane Bernardo, Beverly Berry, Carla Laemmle, Sister Alice Marie Quinn, Joseph Weber.