‘Highland Park’ Shows the Recent Economic Downturn from a Different Perspective

The film Highland Park is a love letter to the can do American spirit that has abated to the point of becoming almost extinct in many areas of the United States, particularly in the Rust Belt. The film tells the story of a small group of public school employees, who live and work in the decaying remains of a Michigan city. After playing the same numbers for ten years, they finally win the state lottery.

The windfall inspires one member of the clique, the school’s principal, Lloyd Howard (Billy Burke), to use his winnings to invest in the community and take on members of the city’s crooked bureaucracy. The film’s grim setting, coupled with the financial hardships faced by its multiple protagonists, is a realistic and relevant look at the socio-economic disparity that seems permanently in place in the US today.

While the characters and the plot are fictional, the setting is not.The movie opens with real footage boasting how Highland Park has evolved from farmland into “the cradle of the American dream.” Highland Park was once home to a Ford plant and was the birthplace of the Chrysler Corporation. Ford’s Highland Park plant was where the moving assembly line method of manufacturing first debuted.

Alas, those who giveth can also taketh away, and Ford outgrew the Highland Park facility and moved production to Dearborn around 1920. The plant was still used for trim fabrication as well as the production of tractors until the ‘70s. Chrysler finally abandoned the area for Auburn Hills in the early ‘90s.

The erosion of Highland Park is evident early on as Howard drives past empty lots, abandoned, buildings and decrepit homes. The fall of this once thriving little metropolis can be attributed to many of the same factors that were causing increased social unrest and in late ‘60s and throughout the ’70s in nearby Detroit. The 12th Street Riot, one of the most violent in US history, only served as further motivation for white families to flee to the suburbs. Even nature abandoned Highland Park, when most of the city’s trees had to be cut down due to Dutch Elm disease. In 2008, when the rest of the country was just starting to feel the financial ramifications of the housing bubble, Detroit and the surrounding areas didn’t have much farther to fall.

This city is where Lloyd Howard along with faculty members Toni (Kimberly Elise), Shaun (Rockmond Dunbar), Rory (John Carroll Lynch), ex-janitor Ed (Danny Glover) and bus driver Jessie (Eric Ladin) have chosen to stay either. Their fortitude is due to a variety of reasons including: lack of options, familial commitments, or in Howard’s case, a determination not to give up on a place where even the residents have grown complacent with the status quo. Convinced that nothing short of a miracle will enable them to improve their life, that’s exactly what they get when their numbers are finally chosen.

Howard immediately uses his share as collateral to do battle with the city’s mayor, Shirley Paine (Parker Posey), who allocates government aid to pet projects as opposed to updating Highland Park’s infrastructure. Howard’s willingness to use personal funds for public works, in particular restoring the city’s historical but dilapidated library, gets the media’s attention. This leaves Paine with no choice but to modify her agenda. Paine sees the opportunity to snag national attention and big bailouts to be used at her discretion. Paine views Howard as a means to an end; a way to further her political ambitions.

While all of the winners predictably make rash expenditures on superficial luxuries, even Howard buys a new car, they all have more altruistic uses in mind for their winnings. Toni has the luxury to pursue a lifelong dream. Rory wants to provide a more comfortable life for his father who suffers from dementia. His sister also needs an influx of cash in order to prevent her home from going into foreclosure. Jessie wants to reconcile with his ex and provide for his children. Sean wants to find love. For the affluent, these are easily attainable goals but for the working and middle class, there is no guarantee that if you work hard, you’ll be able to do more than survive.

Then, the bottom falls out from beneath them all. The unexpected windfall is once more out of their grasp, as it has been for the past decade. Lloyd stands to lose the most when Paine paints him out to be a fraud. After everything he’s started, Lloyd is ready to simply slip away. Ed urges him not to return to his previous state of ambivalence. Lloyd realizes he was doing the best he could, but Ed states that Lloyd was only doing what was necessary. Ed points out how easy it is for people to walk away when things get tough. He attributes this way of thinking to the decay of Highland Park symbolized most my the old library.

Instead of looking for feasible solutions to everyday problems, our government representatives use patriotism or vanity projects that promise jobs and resulting influxes of revenue as distractions. Highland Park illustrates that cash can motivate but it can also corrupt. People can be just as easily inspired by ingenuity and hard work as by money. The lotto may be a long shot, but people need to believe in the possibility of something more because that hope, even if diminished, can lead to action.

The ending is unlikely and outlandish in many respects. But the protagonists are rejuvenated by their brief brush with prosperity. It becomes difficult to miss something that they never really had, and they gain a new appreciation for what they do and for the friendships they’ve formed.

If only we had the access and the power to hold our government officials responsible for their fiscal decisions. What a difference place cities like Detroit and Highland Park would be, if everyone almost won the lottery.

This DVD has no special features.

RATING 6 / 10
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