Love and Debt (2020)

Given the events of the past four (twelve?) years it’s amazing that more contemporary dramedies don’t try to treat of the complexities in the increasing (and likely to continue increasing) money woes of…pretty much every American. Love & Debt, from director Valerie Landsburg, attempts to explore this experience from a sympathetic, though thematically muddled, perspective, in the story of a white-collar father and husband who loses his job and won’t tell his family, not even when debt collectors come calling.

The film centers around Henry (Tom Cavanagh) and Karen (Bellamy Young), an upper middle class couple with the requisite 2.5 children and a fancy house in the suburbs. Karen divides her time between trying to manage her children—an obnoxious adolescent girl, a hockey-obsessed middle child, and her youngest son, who has selective mutism—and developing her own business as a home organizer. She’s frazzled and exhausted and doesn’t yet know that Henry has lost his job and is more than eighty thousand dollars in debt, now owed to a collection agency. Collection agent Travis (Casey Abrams) has been assigned to Henry’s case, making tenuous connections with every member of the family as he desperately tries to get Henry on the phone and explain that he has to pay up. What ensues is a muddle of lies, confusion, concealment, and multiplying stress within a family already edging towards collapse.

Love & Debt manages to be funny without being cloying, highlighting the humanity of the characters even as they make confused, foolish, and all-too-understandable decisions in their increasingly stressful lives. Yes, we’re once again focusing on white collar workers who have the benefit of being in debt without getting the cops or the repo men called to the door, but the film skirts the class issue somewhat to focus on the stress undergone by a husband who can’t bring himself to ask for help or admit failure, and a wife who experiences a whole different kind of stress with no support at home. The film shifts the viewers sympathies between Henry, Karen, and Travis in equal measure, focusing in the second half more on Henry’s attempts to find a job and Karen’s attempts to corral three children, her own overbearing mother, and her husband’s increasingly odd behavior. Travis deserved a bit more focus, as he attempts to do a thankless job that he obviously does not have the stomach for. The film’s message here is one of humanity—that the collection agent is a person who has to see the debtors as less than people (otherwise he’ll lose his mind), that the husband and wife are both people undergoing their own forms of stress, that concealment and lies only result in children having to be the parents, and in parents repeating the sins of their own parents.

Love & Debt wobbles a good bit in the final act, as the film slips into fairly worn clichés and more than one deus ex machina moment. It becomes hard to feel sympathy for Henry, who seems to blame everyone but himself for his debts and the lengths he goes to conceal them, or for Karen, who can’t handle her husband’s lies or the stress of her children, and lashes out in erratic ways. The film seems to be trying to bring things to a satisfying conclusion where no logical conclusion will satisfy, and the final act plays out much as one would expect, without much of the energy or the commentary of the first two-thirds of the film.

Love & Debt feels unfinished, an interesting concept with a strong start that peters out as it comes to a close. Where the audience’s sympathy should lie is an open question, and exploring that issue of sympathy with a group of people occasionally behaving very stupidly and very humanly would have been interesting, if the payoff made it work. But Love & Debt wants to be comfortable viewing while also exploring a complex and difficult topic. Too much time is spent with Henry and Karen and not enough with Travis and his weird band of fellow debt collectors—arguably the more interesting characters, people who have to suborn their humanity in the interest of keeping their jobs, trying to avoid becoming too sympathetic or involved with those they’re trying to collect from in a cycle of parasitic capitalism.

It’s a shame, because the film does have a good heart and generally strong performances across the board. But it winds up feeling a bit perfunctory, as though Landsburg wants to tell a story that she can’t quite bring herself to tell in full. The film is worth it as a diversion, and for the changes of sympathy that the audience has to grapple with, but there’s a lack of depth at the end that makes things just a bit too pat.

Love & Debt is now on VOD and streaming on Amazon Prime.