HBO’s ‘Paycheck to Paycheck’: How one working mom manages to scrape by

When reporters or filmmakers seek out stories about working-class poverty, they often gravitate toward the hardest-luck examples – which are plentiful. A bigger challenge is to make a compelling story out of someone who is just scraping by.

In that spirit, HBO’s observant documentary, “Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life & Times of Katrina Gilbert,” never seems as though it is waiting around for a disaster to befall its subject, a 30-year-old single mother of three young children who works full time in a Chattanooga, Tenn., nursing home for $9.49 an hour.

Nevertheless, the tension is ever-present: Will Gilbert be able to make the rent? Will her soon-to-be-ex-husband stay off addictive painkillers and find a job so he can pay child support? Will an injury or car repair derail the progress Gilbert has made in keeping her children safe, sheltered, educated and fed?

This is one of those beautiful and subtly informative films that’s simply about sitting still in the life of its subject (in “Paycheck’s” case, hanging out for nearly a year) and giving in to the come-what-may approach.

Gradually your worries ease as “Paycheck to Paycheck” discards the usual conflict-resolution narrative. The trade-off is that not much happens as Gilbert nobly tries to do her best for daughters Brooklynn, 7, and Lydia, 5, and son Trent, 3.

It’s important to note that one of the film’s producers is Maria Shriver, who includes the film as part of her multimedia Shriver Report, an effort to meld news and data about women with social activism. That effort has lately focused on the needs of working mothers who are financially teetering; the Shriver Report estimates there are 42 million such women nationally who provide (or try to) for 28 million children.

“Paycheck to Paycheck” (directed by Shari Cookson and Nick Doob) could easily steer itself into a statistical harangue, but the filmmakers instead remain fascinated by the small details of how Gilbert gets by. What about her makes her like so many other women? And what about her doesn’t? There is no narration; “Paycheck” wants you to use your own powers of observation while visiting Gilbert’s world.

It’s clear right away that she would never make ends meet if it weren’t for the impressive Chambliss Center for Children in Chattanooga, where her children get a lot of TLC and, more important for the younger two, are enrolled in Head Start. Fees at a regular day care center, Gilbert says, would eat up nearly all her paycheck. (The Chambliss Center, we learn, has a waiting list of more than 200 children in situations similar to the Gilbert family’s.)

“Paycheck to Paycheck” is filled with the usual ups and downs: Early on, Gilbert has to sell the family’s new puppy on Craigslist for $40 in cash, which saddens her kids. Eager to get a college degree, Gilbert passes an entrance exam but fails to qualify for financial aid. She is also stoically ignoring a thyroid condition, diagnosed when she was a teenager, as well as a litany of aches and pains for which she has no medical insurance.

“Paycheck to Paycheck” is sometimes bleak and even inert, but it is also occasionally sunshine-dappled, as a viewer realizes that Gilbert’s biggest asset might be her calm, steady optimism. Her children experience plenty of happiness. The residents at the nursing home light up when they see her.

If, after watching “Paycheck to Paycheck,” you are driven to help Gilbert or someone like her, the Shriver Report website directs you to donate to the nonprofit group that funds the Shriver Report. Hmmm – I was thinking more along of the lines of a website where I could buy Gilbert a set of tires or send her a $200 grocery-store gift card or crowdsource funds for whatever basic need has just presented itself.