November 19, 2007

Film Review: Independent America - The Two-Lane Search For Mom & Pop

I caught a 2006 documentary titled Independent America: The Two-Lane Search for Mom & Pop recently on Sundance and thought I'd share a brief synopsis and review here on the chance that others might find it as interesting as I did. Briefly, the film explores the impact of big-box retailers, focusing on Wal-Mart, Borders, and Starbucks, on the character of American communities, documenting a growing discontent Americans are experiencing with the impact of such corporations.

Two journalists, Hanson Hosein and Heather Hughes, load up their Nissan Xterra with film equipment and their dog to travel across America. Beginning in Port Townsend, WA, they traverse America with two rules in mind. First, they will attempt to support only independent motels, restaurants, and stores. Second, they will try to stay on back roads, avoiding the newer freeways.

Many of the communities they visit will be familiar, even if you have never visited those portions of America. They show how many towns invited in chain restaurants and big-box retailers to support their sales tax revenue, only do have their downtowns decimated. Once vibrant downtowns now resemble ghost towns, while the strip malls turn the edge of town into Anytown, USA, void of anything unique. Towns become nearly indistinguishable.

They also showcase many communities who have managed to prevent (or at least limit) infiltration by the generic chains and retailers. They make a compelling case for how mom and pop businesses benefit their communities by keeping a larger portion of the money they collect in the town. Although they do also cover the perceived benefits of the large retailers and chains (e.g., price, efficiency, familiarity, standardization, etc.), the tone of the film does not attempt to conceal its agenda.

A particularly interesting point is that promoting mom and pop business over multinational corporations is not a partisan political issue but one of preserving some unique identity. They interviewed several self-described pro-business Republicans who said that being pro-business did not have to mean supporting these corporations at the expense of local business. These Republicans recognized the added value that family-owned businesses brought to their communities and how they contributed to the town's character.

Many documentaries leave the viewer feeling like they are more aware of a problem but clueless as to how to contribute to its resolution. This film escapes this trap by encouraging viewers to shop and dine mindfully. By thinking about where we spend our money, we can view every transaction we make as a vote. If we want to preserve something unique about a community, we need to support local businesses. Instead of obsessing over price, we should realize that more of the money we invest in local businesses will remain in our communities and that the lower price tags of the corporate chains often carry a steep hidden cost, gradually transforming community after community into the generic Anytown, USA.

You can learn more about the film here.

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