See your toxic workplace in this smart teen movie
By JOHN DOYLE
Tuesday, February 25, 2003 - Page R2
The smart, satisfying Fast Food High appears to be aimed at teenagers but every grownup could benefit from watching it.
Fast Food High is set at a fictional fast-food chain called Patty's, but anybody watching knows that it could be about any of the major burger joints. It's about 16-year-old Emma (the excellent Alison Pill) and her fight to establish a union at Patty's. It's a long and bitter fight, one that pits her not only against a creepy boss but against her friends. Sometimes, it seems she's fighting against the world.
When the movie opens, Emma and her pals are happy enough at Patty's. It's a relatively easy job, it's not a career for them, and they feel like they're the cool kids. Then a new owner of the franchise brings in Dale (Gil Bellows) an oily, manipulative jerk who clearly gets his kicks from intimidating women. When Dale makes an obnoxiously sexist remark to Emma, she's galvanized.
At first, Emma's friends think organizing a union is a breeze and they just want revenge against Dale. But doubts quickly set in. At one point, Emma's best pal Zoe (Sarah Gadon) reacts furiously against the dedication and the determination necessary to succeed with the union drive. "It's dorky, selfish and boring," she snaps. She says "selfish" because, in her adolescent way, she resents Emma's grit and perceives it as self-aggrandizing. Mainly, she thinks unions are dorky and boring.
The union itself isn't much help. An uncaring young organizer is sent out to talk to the kids and at first he doesn't take them seriously. Resentful that she's being patronized, Emma keeps plugging away, but she risks losing her boyfriend and, it seems, the respect of most of her friends. There is a lot of talk about "losers" and it's only when Emma understands the working life of other Patty's workers -- the single mother, the senior citizen -- that her understanding actually transcends her initial view. She sees that getting a union is not just about a bunch of kids getting revenge against a creepy boss.
Fast Food High is well written (by Jackie May and Tassie Cameron) and is astute about the gullibility and shallow greed of teenagers. Emma's boyfriend Scott (Joe Dinicol) quickly dissociates himself from Emma's union drive because he is, Lord save us, a "manager-in-training." He thinks he's been lifted above the proletariat. Things become even messier when Emma needs his signature and he misinterprets her presence as an attempt to rekindle their romance. His hurt rage is more powerful than any of the characters' belief in trade unionism.
In fact, nobody could accuse Fast Food High of being giddily pro-union. In an interesting twist, Emma's dad (John Kapelos) works for a union, but for much of the story here he wants nothing to do with Emma's fight. He also tends to be an absent, uninvolved parent because he's always away on union business.
The movie (directed with vigour and assuredness by Nisha Ganatra) is clearly inspired by real stories about attempts to unionize branches of McDonald's, but it's also about the toxic dynamics of any workplace.
Adults who watch will recognize the behavior of the teens. Not because they merely remember adolescence, but because in many offices and factories, grownups behave with heightened adolescent self-interest, snobbery and backbiting.
Maybe both teens and grownups who watch might also recognize why trade unions exist and why, in the workplace, self-interest is sometimes a mistake. With luck, anybody watching will realize why our forefathers and mothers fought hard for the right of workers to organize and fight for a fair deal.