By Sally Foster | March 23, 2006

In a nation where nearly everything is purchased on credit and the average household debt has been steadily rising for decades, millions of people in America have simply accustomed themselves to living in endless debt. But is it necessary that we merely resign ourselves to coexist not-so-peacefully with debt, or is there a way out? At a time when our debt as individuals and as a nation is at an all-time high, “Maxed Out” offers a much needed look at this escalating dilemma.

In “Maxed Out,” director/producer James Scurlock collects interviews with a variety of people, including debt collectors, experts and the individuals affected by debt. The end result is an alarming expose on the realities of this epidemic; as our nation’s families sink further and further into debt, interest and penalty fees accrue, catapulting the overall amounts owed into startling heights. The film is tight and well-constructed, weaving interviews with stock footage of news stories about debt, as well as frightening statistics, expert opinions, and a discussion of government policies on the subject. Also present in the equation is our country’s own climbing debt, held at bay for the time being by the quick-fix solution known as “surfing,” the act of paying off debt with more debt.

“Maxed Out” is a skillful intertwining of facts, interviews and vignettes, ultimately coming together to form a picture of our country’s current financial state. Juxtaposing stories of individuals who have resorted to bankruptcy or even suicide with the ardent justification of tactics by debt collectors, the film serves well as a cautionary tale against the dangers of charging everything. But disturbingly absent in all this is any suggestion of a way to solve the problem. Many of the experts interviewed skirt around the issue, but in the end, no real solution is offered. What results is an intensely depressing analysis of a problem from which there really seems to be no feasible escape route.

The film is absorbing and fast-paced, and Scurlock has successfully pulled together an immense wealth of information into a coherent look at the country’s ever-building debt epidemic. But through it all, the tone of the movie is relentlessly dark and fatalistic, making it more than a little disheartening to sit through. In addition to offering no solution, “Maxed Out” approaches the situation from a standpoint that completely negates the role of the individual in any of this; the film depicts a country in which the privileged few are feeding off the many, with credit card companies specifically targeting those individuals who are least likely to be able to pay in order to prey off of their misfortune. Though highly informative and undeniably interesting, by the end, “Maxed Out” just left me looking for an answer and finding none.

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