Gabriel Ponniah, Editor In Chief
ATX Screen Scene
Healthcare, for citizens of the United States, has been among the more scrutinized political subjects in recent memory.
As the baby boomers reach their twilight years, the oft-maligned interplay of public and private options risks collapse under the sheer volume of the issue, and it’s lower income folks who will be crushed at the bottom of that pile. It’s a problem which extends to every aspect of life for those most at risk. One such manifestation lies at the heart of the documentary The Vet Van, which sets its sights precisely at the intersection of pet ownership and class.
As a concept, the Vet Van is a mobile veterinary unit aimed at providing low-cost care to the pets of underserved communities. The documentary revolves around two primary threads: the experience of Lucy and Donny, and that of Tabitha, with a smattering of other individual subjects to flesh out the breadth of the service, and occasional statistics to provide context. Both of the main stories feature at their core a conflict between the price and cost of care, and that conflict either consumes the pet as was the case with Donny and Lucy’s lab Ivy, or spreads further, inflaming tensions between individuals like what happened with Tabitha.
The issue here runs deep, and these tensions are real and compelling. Garo provides an intimate portrait of the struggle to do good when seemingly overwhelmed by challenges from every angle. Lucy’s relationship with Ivy is absolutely heartbreaking; in that dog lies her support and catharsis with regards to her abuse and her partner’s illness, while in the vestiges of Ivy’s memory scattered about the apartment lies the pain of her absence. Tabitha stands strong fighting for her dog’s life on behalf of her entire family against the threat of being taken advantage of, while the father of her children is incarcerated. The thoroughness of angles here presented is evidence of directors Sarah Jenks and Lizzie Mulvey’s background as Columbia journalism students, this being their first film.
In the same breath, however, both these elements work against the film. While the duo have admirably sunk their teeth into a meaty issue, their inexperience shows in their plotting. Certainly they tackle the conflict between the Vet Van employees and their clients with an instinct towards balanced coverage, but this egalitarian approach means their messaging tends to meander. The piece reads more like an objective news report on a situation than a story, and as a result, it neuters the emotional weight and potential action steps such a work could’ve engendered in its audience. I can only speculate, but I suspect the filmmakers have confused perspective for bias. The result: an issue film that leaves its viewers confused about which issue is the issue, much less how to solve it.
Meanwhile, the film’s subjects are caught in this whirlwind, and the filmmakers are unclear as to the intent of their presentation. Garo, for example, is introduced as a beacon of altruism in the fight on behalf of the lives of low-income pets, but is undercut by statements like “...who has no veterinary training,” and the film’s later alignment with Tabitha in framing the conflict between the two. Garo is then shown to be advancing his business operation, and leaves off on a very pessimistic interview note, leaving us to wonder as to his alignment. But it hasn’t traded favorites for Tabitha, because the film assures us of the debt she and her family have incurred to save their dog from Parvo, dropping her in a heartbeat. It stands to wonder if the added stress of even a scant documentary crew could’ve contributed to tensions; the world can seem a whole lot meaner with a camera in your face. This detached, hands-off style may be artistically valid, but it’s ultimately less effective and especially confounding for such an activism-oriented piece. The film is called The Vet Van, and from the outset, the service is framed in an empathetic light; we are in the Van. But when the credits roll, we’re left to wonder not how we can help the plight of underserved pets, but whether the vet van—and indeed efforts of the like, are good at all.
The practice of filmmaking is its own best teacher, and telling effective stories takes just that—practice. At minimum, Jenks and Mulvey have proved themselves fully capable in the field and the editing bay, and they have demonstrably good instincts when it comes to ethics, whether shooting for balanced representation or investigating broad phenomena using statistics. If in future work they can dig into the root causes behind some of those statistics, then perhaps they can find a message to champion instead of having to defer to equal time for both sides. The Vet Van, for all its flaws, shows great potential for such growth.