Now streaming: Documentaries about the plight of American and Chinese factory workers, social media celebrities

click to enlarge American Factory
American Factory

AMERICAN FACTORY (Netflix)

American Factory is a fascinating portrait of corporate capitalism in a microcosm, a look at the expendability of cheap labor and the human cost of efficiency. Its focus is specific, but its concerns are universal.

The first feature to be released through Barack and Michelle Obama's production company Higher Ground, it's set in a neighborhood outside Dayton, Ohio, which has never recovered from the closure of a General Motors plant that left thousands of workers unemployed. As the film opens, though, the abandoned factory has been taken over by the Fuyao corporation, a Chinese company that manufactures automobile glass, and a sense of relief washes over the locals as they realize they can finally head back to a steady job.

Fuyao brings in Chinese workers to show the Americans the ropes, and a camaraderie develops among them despite the language barrier. But that sense of idealism quickly curdles into resentment as the Chinese owners wrest control away from the American managers, and as the stark differences between their work cultures — the Chinese complain that the Americans are too chatty, while the Americans wonder why their Chinese co-workers have to be so serious all the time — make things even more difficult.

So, too, does the company's antipathy toward unions, leading one worker to have a Norma Rae moment, carrying a pro-union sign through the factory before he's escorted out. Directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert don't really take sides in the fight: They show us how the Chinese employees are struggling just as much as the Americans, living away from their families, often for years at a time, in order to secure a better life.

Existing somewhere between the agitprop of Michael Moore and the naturalistic style of Barbara Kopple, American Factory has as many moving human moments as it does infuriating ones. The blue-collar struggle for decent working conditions and a livable wage is ongoing, but the movie doesn't simplify it by diagnosing the problem. It merely observes.

JAWLINE (Hulu)

Jawline peers into a particular corner of the online world wherein teenagers are selling themselves as bankable personalities to other teenagers, a process that no doubt carries a morbid fascination for anyone beyond the age of the people who participate in it.

The film's primary subject is a 16-year-old named Austyn Tester, from Kingsport, Tennessee. He spends his evenings on YouNow and Snapchat, live streaming to audiences of several hundred, talking about his day and dispensing generic "follow your dreams" platitudes. His young viewers comment as they watch, and Austyn personally responds.

Austyn wants to be famous, he says, so that he can spread positivity on a global scale, and Jawline introduces us to other teenagers like him who have more notoriety. They're called "creators" or "influencers." They produce not art or material but "content," which takes minimal effort both to make and to watch. The most popular of them tour the country and appear before crowds of screaming girls, dancing to prerecorded pop tracks and taking selfies with the front row. The touchy-feely nature of these meet-and-greet events appears to be sexless — it involves lots of hugging and kissing on the cheek — but it nonetheless made me extremely uneasy as swarms of girls descend upon these young men, weeping and hyperventilating.

I was expecting Jawline to be a cynical excoriation of vacuous social media culture — which would be easy enough to make — but director Liza Mandelup is surprisingly empathetic, both toward the online celebrities and the young women who worship them. She captures a particular moment in time when being noticed and being ignored are easier than ever. Tester, with his puppy-dog earnestness, hasn't yet been broken down by the ruthless grown-up world and feels almost entitled to fame, but we know with creeping certainty that his followers will eventually refresh their feeds and forget all about him. ♦

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About The Author

Nathan Weinbender

Nathan Weinbender is the Inlander's Music & Film editor. He is also a film critic for Spokane Public Radio, where he has co-hosted the weekly film review show Movies 101 since 2011.