Review: Just Getting By


Bess O’Brien is located in the northeast corner (the Northeast Kingdom) of Vermont. There she has turned out a number of fascinating documentaries on the people of Vermont over many years. She has a new one out: “Just Getting By.”

In her previous work, through Kingdom County Productions, she has focused on prescription drug addiction (“The Hungry Heart”), the life and murder of a 17-year-old Vermont girl (“Where is Stephanie?”), a man with early dementia (“Here Today”), the lives of youth in foster care (“Ask Us Who We Are”), a musical about the lives of Vermont teens (“Shout It Out”), and with her husband, Jay Craven (“Disappearances”), films based on the stories of Vermont novelist Howard Frank Mosher (“Where the Rivers Flow North”).

Now, she turns her attention to the crisis of homelessness in Vermont. “Just Getting By” chronicles the struggles of a broad swath of Vermont’s poor who are on the verge of homelessness, or are actually homeless but living in hotel rooms paid for first by the federal government and then by the state of Vermont.

While Vermont is the second smallest of our states by population, it is the second highest in homelessness. Only California has a higher percentage. Despite that, the problems seen in the homeless and near homeless population of the “Green Mountain State” are similar to that of every other part of the United States: low wages, job loss, illness (mental and physical), drug addiction, ostracism, racial prejudice, and unaffordable rent costs: they are all here, and Bess covers them all with a respectful but dispassionate eye.

She also includes sketches of the people trying to help fill the gaps in support: the ministers, the food bank staffers, the volunteers who deliver food to the home bound.

O’Brien and her team have done a remarkable job of identifying the myriad problems and bandaid solutions to a national problem through the broad-spectrum interviews they carried out. The style of interview used is that where we never see the interviewer or hear the questions. Instead, the subjects appear to provide their own narrative of where they are, what their struggle is, and to a lesser extent, how they got into the position they find themselves in now. This latter could be considered a weakness of the project. How a person got into the desperate situation they find themselves in now is a question many viewers will have.

The state of Vermont spent over $200 million on housing folks in hotel rooms (and these were not Hiltons or Marriotts) over the period since the pandemic up to the time of these interviews. Whether they would continue this support, which is a serious drain on a relatively poor state, and with what restrictions, is a concern mirrored in the faces and comments of many of the interviewees.

As you can imagine, editing an endeavor like this is a substantial task, and it was done well. Cinematography and sound, being carried out in crowded hotel rooms, tiny apartments, soup kitchens and food pantries is another challenge well met here.

There are lots of docs about homelessness. Rarely do they offer practical solutions and you won’t find any offered here. What you will find is a respectful overview of the problem from those closest to it.

Runtime: One hour, 24 minutes
Availability: Playing at various theaters in Vermont

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