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Saturday, December 27, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 36.0° F  Fog/Mist
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A Place at the Table illuminates America's hunger problem
Food for thought
Real people are more compelling than cartoons.
Real people are more compelling than cartoons.

Consider cutesy animations. These days, they're a cliché of hectoring documentaries that advocate for social or political change. In the crypto-conservative Waiting for Superman, cartoon people with lemons for heads dance, illustrating, um, something. Animations likewise jazz up overwrought lefty polemical films such as Food, Inc. and Under Our Skin.

Based on the opening scenes, I had hopes for A Place at the Table, a sober documentary about hunger in America. It begins with tasteful acoustic music and then introduces us to a little Colorado girl who doesn't get enough to eat. These scenes are sad and effective, and so are other ones that focus on people in need.

But before long A Place at the Table turns into a mishmash of talking heads and statistics, like those other films. And there are, yes, cutesy cartoons. They're about farm policy.

All these films deal with really important stuff - school reform, the food system, Lyme disease. In complaining about the movies, I'm not minimizing the seriousness of their subject matter. It's actually the filmmakers who trivialize the issues with their animations.

I understand the animating impulse. The cartoon sequences seem designed to enliven dry numbers and complicated ideas. But cinema isn't a good medium for conveying statistics and complicated ideas, certainly not in shorthand.

Cinema is good at conveying complex emotions, though, and the best parts of A Place at the Table show wrenching moments in the lives of real people. I wanted to cry as I watched a scene in which a Mississippi Delta schoolteacher has her pupils pass around a honeydew melon. They handle it uncertainly, as if they've never seen fresh produce before. Other compelling sequences are set in inner-city Philadelphia, where a single mother raises young children and struggles with the absurdities of the food-stamps bureaucracy.

We also hear from numerous authors, experts, politicians and celebrities, including actor Jeff Bridges, who founded an anti-hunger effort. Eventually the film reaches a conclusion: There ought to be more government programs. How you feel about that obviously depends on how you feel about government programs. The movie barely acknowledges that well-meaning people can disagree on the issue.

I know there can be a good documentary about the food system, even one with cutesy animations, because I have seen it: the wonderful 2007 film King Corn. It covers some of the same material as A Place at the Table but also tells a poignant story about interesting people. It's informative, and it's wry and artful. Is it okay to go to a movie, even a polemical documentary, and expect to see some art?

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