“I’m worried, Mom,” says preschool-age Jade, as she nuzzles her mother Betty’s leg in a down-at-heel backyard. When pressed as to the source of her worry, the answer is both plain and quite troubling: “I don’t know.” Inchoate anxiety and a wild, fanciful imagination vie for space in a young girl’s psyche in “I Love You I Miss You I Hope I See You Before I Die” — a deceptively whimsical title for a splintered, hard-bitten documentary study of life below the poverty line for three closely squashed generations of women in the suburbs and strip malls of Colorado Springs.
Shot in grainy, spontaneous fashion, Danish director Eva Marie Rødbro’s arresting first feature deftly toggles between rough everyday realities of financial strain, relationship trouble and drug abuse, and the escape mechanisms instinctive to each of her subjects: it may be My Little Pony fantasies for Jade and weed for her elders, but the benefits are much the same. Boutique Toronto-based sales company Syndicado boarded Rødbro’s film shortly before its world premiere in IDFA; a niche commercial prospect, dependent on festival word of mouth, it should ultimately find a home on specialist streaming platforms.
Even well-intentioned filmmakers can often tip over into condescension or moral hand-wringing when examining the culture of babies having babies having babies in a similarly repeating cycle of breadline desperation. Yet “I Love You I Miss You I Hope I See You Before I Die” (a title that will certainly stand out on the festival circuit, however opaque its meaning within the film) pulls off a comparably humane balancing act to Sean Baker’s fiction feature “The Florida Project,” or even Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey,” albeit in far scruffier style: It examines the socioeconomic environment of middle-American poverty with a gaze both critical and impressionistic, without passing judgment on the individuals tangled up in it.
By finding fleeting poetry in its chosen family’s plight without romanticizing their hardship, “I Love You…” also athletically sidesteps another potential pitfall in its documentary subgenre. Crucially, Rødbro hasn’t just happened upon a household that fits her thesis and turned the camera on: Her debut is the culmination of a decade-long acquaintance with Betty, now a frayed mother of two in her early twenties, initiated when the young Texan native was little more than a kid herself.
Her story, and even her present-day circumstances, emerge in pained, jagged fragments, some of them dropped by her hard-living, good-humored and only barely middle-aged mother Wilma. “I didn’t want anybody picking on her, so I made her mean,” says Wilma, though that hardly seems the case: Betty’s vulnerability all but reaches through the screen, her defenses worn thin by substance abuse and an exhausting relationship with jail-grazing addict Martin, a barely-there father to their kids.
Wilma, Betty and Jade share a boxy, cluttered Colorado Springs house also occupied by at least half a dozen other hard-up folk and their little ones, though the film’s focus is so closely fixed on that core trio that we remain only hazily aware of their roommates’ identities and rotations — aptly, we largely experience them as background noise in lives already filled with enough interior chaos. In a film characterized by tetchy, sawn-off switches in perspective, its most serene moments come when we’re invited to share Jade’s inner world, though there’s a dark undertow to her games of make-believe. “These ones are dead,” she notes nonchalantly as she devises a unicorn-based fairytale with her My Little Pony dolls; at other points, she solemnly plays hide-and-seek with the ghosts she believes haunt their unremarkable one-storey.
Rødbro and fellow DP Troels Rasmus Jensen are so adept in forging breath-on-your-neck intimacy with their subjects at moments like these that one sometimes wishes “I Love You…” would sustain such sequences a little longer, rather than switching so frequently and abruptly in mood and focus. The film’s whirling alternation of camera types and filters may capture a certain topsy-turvy quality in the lives in question, though the resulting grunginess recalls an era slightly older than Betty herself: There’s even a baby delivery scene scored to Radiohead at their most gorgeously mournful. Ultimately, however, that cinematic restlessness is to the film’s credit: a dynamic way of illustrating lives that are far more than one thing, even if they’re afforded a single glance by most passersby.