By the time Angela Jerome, played sans sentimentality by Lauren Ambrose, says the title line, most viewers will probably have lost all compassion for her as a human being. As the protagonist, her role is that of decision-maker: she does things and what she does is often a helpless mess. All of the general sympathy an audience could spare for a disenfranchised single mother goes out the window when you see what Angela’s conscience looks like- twisty, at best. You may even blame her for what can only be assumed about her story, like how she got stuck in Las Vegas in the first place. Her salvation comes in the form of an offer to invest money in her company, where she works a dead end job. The thing is…she has no money. A sideline of her story is devoted to getting this money, at whatever cost, believing that it will change her life.
Angela intends to use back-paid child support to get in on a shady deal with her truly sleazy boss. This is only the beginning of a downward spiral that devastates her young daughter. Her plans are faulty and she does not seek out help. Is it because of pride? Is she ashamed? Either way, she starts off and remains an unsympathetic character. Her daughter, on the other hand, is heartbreaking.
Sunny, the child, has trouble reading and is otherwise unhealthy looking. She is sad, lonely, and gets cut off at the knees by her mother whenever she wants something (a milkshake, coconut cups for her birthday party…). Her mother tells her they can’t get what she wants, but throughout the film, in which every scene is about what money she does or does not have, Angela spends her pay on cigarettes, drinks, a pay-as-you-go phone, and, of course, she generally abuses her credit card. If Angela has a little, Sunny gets even less. Angela is a desperate woman, but not by any means a desperate mother: Sunny could disappear, viewers might imagine Angela being awash in relief. While this may not be the truth of her character, the fact that it is imaginable is startling and gives Ambrose’s character a sharp, frightening edge to watch out for.
American poverty is a tricky thing to portray without making the players look like fools, after all it is easy to think that Angela is in all this trouble because of what she did not do. America is a land of opportunity, right? She must have missed things or let something slip. While this might be true, poverty is not about having choices- it’s about a lack of options. She might have made mistakes, but there was nothing clear-cut about the decisions she had to make. Poverty in America is about having nothing and living right next door to someone who has more: opportunity looks like a broken window, subject only to everything and defined by desperation. So, if Ambrose’s Angela looks cruel and foolish and if her depth never matches the surface, blame it on poverty. Blame yourself for not understanding how someone could be so desperate while, all at once, being horribly irresponsible.
Dark, cold, dirty, and hungry for a fresh start, Angela reaches her own personal low (or is it the height of insanity?) when she tries to sell Sunny to a creepily clean Canadian couple for their offer of $20,000. Without questions, without papers, without an address or even a promise, she drives her beyond faulty wreck of a car to the outskirts of Las Vegas and prepares to hand her little girl over to strangers. She tells Sunny “think of me” in a mock-emotional tone. The delivery is unconvincing because she might have, just as she said it, realized that she was supposed to reassure her daughter that she would be the one thinking of her.