From the opening moments of filmmaker Meghan Eckman’s documentary The Parking Lot Movie, in which a former parking attendant of the Corner Parking Lot—which lies adjacent to the campus of the University of Virginia—effusively compares the role of the lot attendant to a “tollbooth operator on the expressway to the American dream,” it’s unequivocally understood that these employees don’t see their job in this run-of-the-mill, square cement lot as typical or tedious. In fact, it’s a coveted gig, and many of the highly educated employees, who range from college undergrads to thirtysomethings, are quite proud to be working the gate, and often use their time productively, like discussing philosophy, studying, or learning an instrument—though the job can be thankless, as cars try to zoom past the exit without forking over their owed lot fees, even commonly disputing mere cents.
Filled with mostly talking heads pontificating in acute detail about the mundane, day-to-day occurrences they endure, The Parking Lot Movie uniformly lacks excitement, cycling back to the same terrain. Other than a few fly-on-the-wall moments during which customers refuse to pay and the attendants chase them down and jump on their cars in violent fashion, the doc doesn’t shape a compelling story worth fitting into the feature-length doc format. Also, too many employees, past and present, are interviewed, and without a central figure to follow, the audience is left with the impression that the director wrongly chose to focus on the humdrum Corner Parking Lot as the star without moving beyond the attendants’ obvious quirks and vastly developed vocabulary. The film tries to dig into meatier politics in its second half, pointing out the ever-expanding vehicles, like SUVs, that park in the lot each day as vulgar effects of America’s desire to over-consume and take up space, but ultimately The Parking Lot Movie serves as an anecdotal account of what it’s like to work at a low-wage job and loving it.
Again, what’s missing from the film is a real feel—the quiet moments of daily conduct—for the parking lot itself and its inhabitants, since Eckman hardly hovers over the attendant’s shoulders for longer than a minute, lazily cutting back to interviews to fill in the routine details. Even if the attendants do sum up their time at the lot as character-building and a relatively painless way to earn money to support their more art-driven hobbies and schoolwork, the filmmaker has a hard time translating that joy to the screen; the cornball, awkwardly positioned rap sequence performed by three employees expressing the gleeful sentiment comes off forced and hokey. We’re left with the dubious sense that Eckman strived to craft the doc as an answer to Richard Linklater’s Slacker, and took a wrong turn in the early stages, before the conceptual structure and premise were fully formed.