Running the gamut of the post-9/11 political landscape (election fraud, Katrina, the Patriot Act), We Pedal Uphill—a film composed of 13 short, fictional sketches, each set and shot in a different state—would seem calculated to serve up that least desired of cinematic offerings: a self-conscious, all-inclusive portrait of the Way We Live Now. And yet, by channeling his larger critiques into a micro-level approach, by confining the scope of most segments to two characters who generally do little besides talk, and by only occasionally hammering home his larger points, writer-director Roland Tec offers a kaleidoscopic, mostly thoughtful portrait of George Bush’s America (the film’s subtitle situates the action in 2001 - 2008) that avoids the insistently revelatory tone of more polished but less nuanced studio efforts that tread a similar territory.
The sketches themselves are a mixed lot, but even the less successful develop in interesting, often unexpected ways. In the film’s longest, most ambitious segment, Tec offers up his bluntest narrative conceit: a pair of sinister, black-clad Feds show up at a library and demand access to the records of a man with an Arabic name. When the librarian refuses, she’s threatened with a trip to Guantanamo. As embarrassing as this rehash of a tired worse-case scenario may be (and the presence of poorly imagined stock villains doesn’t help), the sketch takes on far greater import when the consequences of refusal become clear, the director connecting the Patriot Act plotline with a parallel narrative strand through a sophisticated use of flashback that allows the segment’s ominous implications to sneak up on the viewer with unforeseen potency.
Although none of the sketches are without interest, they don’t always offer much in the way of insight. But at their best, they do force a considered reevaluation of the viewer’s social environment. In the film’s most powerful segment, post-Katrina Louisiana becomes a testing ground for fiercely contradictory racial attitudes. When a black man drives his car into a white neighborhood, his anomalous presence is instantly signaled by the menacing stares of the residents who stand glaring from the lawns. Pulling into a driveway, he gets out and approaches a white man, who instructs his kids to hurry up and run inside. When the man gets out of his car, the other greets him warmly but with evident reserve. As it transpires, he (the white man) saved the other’s life and that of his family during Katrina and he (the black man) has dropped by to thank him. In the perfectly measured rhythms of Carl Palmer’s delivery, the white man acts out his untenable position—his natural inclination toward friendly discourse undercut by his segregationist social environment and his role as protector of his family. In the hothouse world of the hurricane, people of different races came together as, simply, people. In the all-white neighborhoods of suburban Louisiana, though, it’s quite another matter indeed.
Aesthetically, We Pedal Uphill is merely serviceable. Shot on low-grade DV with mostly handheld camerawork, the film’s downscale visual approach is in keeping with the sketch-like nature of its segments. Which is not to say that the picture doesn’t have its moments of visual felicity (in particular, a long tracking shot down the corridors of a deserted factory with the ghosts of former workers chiming in on the soundtrack), but that, by eschewing the surface gloss of a higher-budget production, it avoids a tone of insistent self-importance. The performances tend toward the theatrical (not surprising, considering that the actors are drawn exclusively from the stage), but not in the sense of a loud declamatory obtrusiveness. Instead the performers speak with a certain conscious artificiality, further undercutting any illusions the film might have had to a dubious naturalism. The impression is of watching an actor’s workshop, transplanted to location and filmed by an amateur crew. But given the potential unwieldiness of his ambitious subject matter, this provisional aesthetic is probably Tec’s best—and perhaps, only—hedge against the unwanted self-seriousness that has sunk far less ambitious projects than this one.