Economic crossroads an introduction

Sarah Colt’s observational documentary follows three Americans who are struggling in the pre-COVID economy. “The Disrupted” is an insightful snapshot of how things were before the fall of the virus hammer. And if it was bad, then one can only imagine how these three resourceful souls are coping today.

Colt and her co-director Josh Gleason embedded camera crews with Donn, a fifth-generation Kansas farmer, a laid off Ohio factory worker named Pete, and Cheryl, a Florida Uber/Lyft driver. All three subjects are in a period of financial transition.

Donn desperately wants to keep the farm in the family.

Donn’s 62 years old, and family farming has been impacted by the growth of large agribusinesses. His sons moved on to other fields, but he holds out hope that one or both of them will find a way to carry on the tradition.

We meet Pete just as he’s losing his job of twelve years at 3M. The plant’s closing and he and his wife have to make some tough decisions. As a younger man, Pete spent time in prison, which left him an eternal optimist. He’s determined to reinvent his career.

Cheryl already reinvented herself in the near past. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, she left mortgage banking and took up driving full-time for Uber and later, also, for Lyft. But as corporate margins and competition drove down her income, she’s looking to make another change.

Pete meets with a career counselor after the 3M plant closes.

The cameras in “The Disrupted” are always rolling. It’s a cinema verite approach, one that audiences schooled on reality programming will embrace. This constant recording captures intimate moments.

Donn, continually chomping on a gnarled cigar, learns that he has developed cancer. He requires surgery, and Colt’s crew is right there as the man breaks down.

Cheryl, a divorcee, living alone, discusses her experiences driving for a living. We even meet some of her passengers. The audio is a revealing collage of voices. And in one shocking moment, we come to understand how stressful being a ride-share worker can be.

Pete and his wife are lucky in many ways. Their residence is paid off, and Pete receives slightly less in unemployment payments than the $23 per hour he used to make. His health insurance continues for some time. And he is determined to educate himself and even start a business.

What’s revealing is how determined all three subjects are to move ahead. But forward progress is frustrating. For example, Donn admits that he could sell his land and retire, but what would he do then? And he wonders whether it would be the right thing for his sons.

Cheryl hopes for a rider while cooling it in an airport cell phone waiting lot.

Cheryl’s a good talker. This characteristic is probably one of the reasons she works well with her passengers. I’m sure that some people don’t want to chat with their driver, but I’m always interested in their work. “The Disrupted” gives us some insight. And Cheryl’s got a plan that involves an Internet-based business.

If there’s a limitation to Colt’s efforts here, it’s that there’s not enough in-depth focus on one story. The common thread is economic disparity, but any of the subjects could have supported an entire film. The family farm dilemma has been covered extensively in both fiction and non-fiction films. The plight of ride-share drivers and their efforts to organize should be its own film.

And Pete’s story is as much about a former criminal finding his way in legitimate society as it is about financial hardship. Of the three, Pete comes off as the most likely to succeed. Maybe his efforts were more appealing to me because I related to his optimistic worldview.

This broad coverage of three subjects operating in somewhat similar places makes “The Disrupted” an excellent survey of the gig economy and other economic realities. It plays like the first episode of what could quickly become an engaging docuseries.

But while “The Disrupted” may initially have a televisual feel and series narrative swath, award-winning cinematographer Tom Bergmann (see “Life, Animated,” and “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail”) gives the film a decidedly cinematic look. As the movie reaches its closing moments, Bergmann’s work impressively builds upon the emotion on display. And Pete’s observations about his life and progress mirror the pleasing closing visuals powerfully.

“The Disrupted” is a good start that needs a follow-up act. Colt finds subjects that are worth revisiting. You’re left wanting to learn more about them, and given the left turn that the economy is currently experiencing, Colt should consider sticking with this theme.