In Downeast, filmmakers David Redmon and Ashley Sabin have the thankless task of turning the drabness of town-hall meetings, itemized bills read aloud, and florescent office lighting into a cogent documentary about the perverse impossibility of the American dream. The film is a look into the small-town politics of a fishing village in Maine as Antonio Bussone, an Italian immigrant, tries to resurrect a recently shutdown sardine canning factory into a lobster business that would bring back hundreds of jobs to the region. It’s also an exposé of how the financial structures that make businesses possible in America seem to conspire against genuine good will and non-self-serving ambition, annihilating them not in a single blow, but in a series of Kafkaesque bureaucratic labyrinths.
Busssone’s attempt to transform the defunct sardine cannery into one of the first lobster factories in the U.S by applying for a federal grant requires the approval of the town of Gouldsboro. The town seems to be comprised of elderly white people who love their trucks, their guns, and not their seatbelts so much. But, mostly, they’re just very enthusiastic and hungry for a job—one which may seem excruciatingly repetitive for some of us, but not for the elderly townsfolk who seem perfectly willing to work even after hip and knee replacements, and until the age of 90, God willing. Most of them, unemployed after several decades of doing the same task at the same job at the same factory, seem to back Bussone’s plans and grant applications. But the city’s councilman, Dana Rice, who’s a lobster dealer himself, has no interest in welcoming Antonio into town, often vetoing the will of the town’s majority to guarantee the success of his own business.
The most interesting scene in Downeast actually isn’t one that pushes its narrative of “driven man against rotten state” forward. It’s a digression of sorts. At a moment when it seems like Bussone’s plans are taking off, the elderly female workers who are in the process of being rehired are congregated in a small waiting room at the new factory, after cleaning out dozens of lobsters, with their aprons, rubber gloves, and hair caps on. One of them, tired-looking but gleeful at the opportunity to hold a job again, says the lobsters supposedly don’t have a nervous system, as if to reassure her colleagues, and herself, that it’s okay to manhandle them alive so roughly. She says that it hurts the lobsters less than when they’re dropped into boiling water. “They’ve got to. Everyone’s got a feeling,” another woman responds. “They’ve got to,” she repeats for emphasis, hinting that, before the eyes of the state, some humans are critters too.