I was beginning to wonder if making a feature film in which none of the characters had anything at all to do with the film industry was still possible. Even though soft-spoken teddy bear Eli (Eric Tate) steals cars for a living and although Harper (Lindsey Roberts) is merely a butch and feisty street hustler, they’re far more interesting to watch than yet another scarcely-veiled autobiography about the director’s tortured existence.
Films-about-filmmakers burn-out aside, “The Poor and Hungry” is a ruggedly moving digital feature; an unlikely love story with a gritty, vaguely melancholic air in keeping with its street environs.
Eli works for the mean-spirited chop-shop operator Mr. Coles (John Still). Yet, his conscience is already working on him, even before he peeps in on the lovely Amanda Russell (Lake Latimer) practicing her cello, then steals her car. When he finds a cassette labelled “Playing with Daddy” in the tape deck, he becomes completely infatuated with his unknowing, unwitting mark. When he later bumps into her at the impound and offers her a ride home, his infatuation begins to evolve into something much deeper…especially when Amanda reciprocates.
Harper, meanwhile, hustles the streets, acquiring and selling her illicit merchandise with enough entrepreneurial spirit to rival today’s young dot-commers. Her big mission is to score a Caddy convertible for loquacious African-American massage parlor owner Cowboy Earl (T.C. Sharpe). For that, she needs Eli’s help; not to steal the car, but to persuade Mr. Cole to do business with her. When Eli at first hesitates, trying to escape from his shady line of work for Amanda’s sake, it throws his friendship with Harp into a crisis that only deepens as her scheme unravels.
“The Poor and Hungry” is essentially an unexpectedly moving version of the old star-crossed lovers storyline set on the mean streets of Memphis. In spite of Eli’s and Amanda’s economic and cultural differences, let alone the fact that he stole her car, the connection between these two lonely souls is memorable, genuinely touching, and totally believable. Harper, meanwhile, is the hyper-active, occasionally annoying spitfire to Eli’s quiet, gentle giant; the hip-hop to Amanda’s classical bent.
Brewer’s decision to drain the colors from his DV gives the film an appropriately rougher edge to match its streetwise grit. Now, if only he’d had Eli swipe some pompous director’s Porsche, “The Poor and Hungry” would have been an instant classic.