leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh
First-time filmmaker Jeffrey M. Togman's documentary examines a complex issue — the apparent intractability of poverty — through the revealingly narrow perspective of one woman's efforts to improve her family's lot through homeownership. Sheree Farmer is poor, African-American and has a lot of children — six, ranging from grade-school age to teenagers — but she's anything but the heedless single mother of popular stereotypes. Sheree got married before she began having children, has a steady job with the Veterans Administration, and doesn't drink, use drugs or party with feckless boyfriends. She's raising her children alone because, she says, her husband of 15 years became a crack addict a few years into their marriage and beat her; she stayed with him as long as she could in hopes of providing a stable home life for her children. Sheree wants desperately to move her family out of Newark, New Jersey, public housing, away from the crime, violence and cycle of teenage pregnancy she's afraid will claim them. And against all odds, the opportunity presents itself: A nonprofit organization called New Community Corporation is developing a block of subsidized houses, real homes worth $245,000 that buyers like Sheree can purchase for $125,000. All she has to do is qualify for a mortgage, a daunting slog through bureaucratic purgatory for people coping with far fewer personal and financial pressures than Sheree. Her lifeline is New Community staffer Mary Rigby-Abernathy, whose job — perhaps a better word is "avocation" — is helping people like Sheree overcome the obstacles, large and small, that stand between them and homeownership. In practical terms, Sheree's priority is clearing her credit history of three debts totaling less than $3,500, including an emotionally charged one to a bail bondsman, a legacy of her troubled marriage. But the larger issue is Sheree's own inability to commit to changing her life so dramatically: Inured to the day-to-day habits of poverty, unable to trust anyone offering help, and suddenly enmeshed in a devastating legal skirmish with her oldest daughter, headstrong 14-year-old Jalishah, Sheree is perpetually overwhelmed and copes by withdrawing. Togman, an associate professor in political science at Seton Hall University, paints a clear-eyed and unsentimental picture of Sheree's efforts, and there are no happy endings for her or for Mary, who's quietly battling breast cancer as she helps Sheree line up paperwork and negotiate with creditors. The film leaves them both where they started: struggling.