Barely treading water at $9.49 an hour

By Neil Genzlinger / New York Times News Service

Much of the attention lavished on HBO tends to go to its elaborate fictions: “True Detective,” for instance, which just completed its first season, and “Game of Thrones,” which is about to start its fourth. But fact has a place on the network as well, and you can’t get much closer to the hard facts of everyday existence than “Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert,” a documentary on Monday night.

The film follows Gilbert, a 30-year-old raising three children in Chattanooga, Tenn., over the course of a year that is both ordinary and grindingly difficult. Separated from her husband, who provides no financial support, she struggles to stretch the $9.49 an hour she makes as a nursing assistant at an extended-care center for aged patients.

The film, by Shari Cookson and Nick Doob, is about as stripped-down as a documentary can get. There are no politicians or academics telling you what to feel, what it all means or how this story fits into the broader economic picture. Just snippets of Gilbert living her life.

There is manipulation here, to be sure. Who wouldn’t sympathize with a woman who spends her workdays caring for frail, old people? And Gilbert’s story could easily be seen as a plug for affordable health insurance or subsidized child care. (The film is part of “The Shriver Report,” Maria Shriver’s initiative on the financial plight of many women and children in the United States.)

But there is no overt preaching. That’s refreshing, though it might also limit the film’s impact. It seems unlikely that the natterers who bash low-income people will watch this film to begin with, but if they do, they’ll just take away their usual negative impressions: “So if this Gilbert woman is so poor, why is she paying money to have her hair done?”

That said, “Paycheck to Paycheck” at least invites the viewer to consider what we value as a society. Watch it with a photograph of a bling-covered celebrity on one side of the television and a picture of a financier whose annual salary is measured in the hundreds of millions on the other.