Chill Clinton obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Film Studies in 2016 and has since worked as a professional writer.
Premiering in late 2001, Max Keeble's Big Move cannot be examined outside of the historic period during which it hit theaters. In the early 2000's, America was transitioning out of "The Roaring 90's", where innovations in the areas of technology and e-commerce led to one of the most stable economic periods in contemporary US history.
However, by 2001, average Americans were already experiencing the consequences of immense economic speculation, and expanding privileges for large multi-national corporations.
By 2001, America was in its first recession since the early 1980's, preceding a decade during which the average productivity of American workers grew while unemployment skyrocketed, the job market did not grow proportionately with the population, and the average household income slumped.
All the while, the richest individuals in America enjoyed significant tax cuts under the Bush Administration, military spending soared, largely benefiting private defense contractors, and Federal Reserve Interest rates plummeted to 1%, setting the stage for sub-prime mortgage lending that inevitably triggered the devastating 2008 financial crisis.
At this point, you may be skeptical of any claim that a family film with a target audience of pre-teen kids pointedly criticizes the socio-economic and political forces that exacerbated America's growing infrastructural problems. However, when we look at the film's many leading and supporting antagonists, the themes become apparent if not glaringly obvious.
Career Displacement as the Inciting Incident
Max Keeble's Big Move opens on Max's (Alex D. Linz) first day of middle school. As he prepares to make his way to the bus, he finds his father (Robert Carradine) in the kitchen, dressed in a lobster mascot costume.
Max explains that his father, Donald, works for an advertising agency, and his boss, Mr. Foge, forces him to wear a variety of costumes for client pitches. When asked by his wife, Lily (Nora Dunn), if he really needs to wear the embarrassing costume, Donald explains that, if he doesn't wear it, "Foge has got a dozen junior ad execs lined up who would be happy to be 'Lieutenant Lobster'".
Later in the film, Donald's fear of career displacement compels him to accept a location transfer to Chicago, where he intends to move his family within a week's notice to the dismay of Lily, who Max makes a point of saying has recently finished a journey of finalizing their current home's design.
Foge, though never appearing on film, is an immensely antagonizing force for David, who is stripped of his freewill and dignity in the interest of preserving his career. His fear of displacement by other workers willing the bend to the whims of their boss echoes the anxieties of workers under a capitalist framework through which at-will employment practices and lack of workplace democracy inspires competition, rather than collaboration between employees within the same workplace.
Foge represents the upper tiers of the workplace hierarchy that is simultaneously disconnected from the wants of his employees, and callously interested in capitalist pursuits even if it results in unfavorable consequences for those beneath him.
The Pursuit of Political Power as Corruption
When Max finally makes it to school, he approaches the front doors under the critical gaze of Principal Jindraike (Larry Miller), who the film introduces by showing him in his office, watching the students pour into the front doors, with disgust. Jindraike categorically and explicitly hates all of the students, with his first lines being, "Here they come with their pimples and their braces and their rickets and their lice. Their snot-nosed, baggy-pantsed, high pitched, squealing voices."
In fact, Jindraike shows no interest in education, instead vying for a Superintendent position for the perceived glory, wanting his name plastered on, "a vast neon sign that stretches across a night sky".
In the film, Jindraike acts as a surrogate for a political leader. When he does the school's morning announcements, he does so from a set that he has outfitted to resemble the oval office. The film makes a repetitive joke out of these morning announcements, where Jindraike addresses the students with cold, commanding orders, before unsuccessfully cutting the feed and unwittingly doing embarrassing things on camera like sticking pencils up his nose, or doing a silly impression.
The students generally see through his facade, one that attempts to command respect through intimidation, but is ultimately sad, hollow, and desperate. Everything Jindraike does is an attempt to curry favor with the current Superintendent (Clifton Davis), who will soon pick a predecessor.
In fact, Jindraike goes as far as to allocate 97% of the school's funding toward building a massive stadium that he plans to name after the Superintendent, who was a high school football star. Because of this decision, the school can no longer afford educational materials, musical instruments, and basic supplies like milk and hand soap.
Jindrake exemplifies the corrupting nature of hierarchical political systems where leaders act in the interest of advancing their own careers even if those choices directly violate the interests of those who they are entrusted to serve. The student's consent to his authority is manufactured by fear of retribution as well as the indifference of the teachers and staff, who act as stand-ins for lower political powers within the hierarchy that benefit from adherence to the dominant political interest, and are less directly impacted by its tyranny due to their status.
Capitalism and the Monopoly on Violence
At school, Max is tormented by two bullies who represent capitalism and monopolized violence, respectively. When Dobbs (Orlando Brown) is introduced, Max's friend Megan (Zena Grey) refers to him as a "Capitalist Tool", who is notorious for becoming a stock market millionaire at the age of ten before losing everything by twelve.
Now, Dobbs struts around the school halls with a briefcase, slowly trying to regain his fortune by stealing money from other students. But Dobbs isn't one for brute force. Instead, he "charges" students for anything that he can, collecting tolls at the entrances of bathrooms, selling students the "right" to buy ice cream, and issuing "margin calls" to students at any time, promising them through a crooked smile that he will invest the money in mutual funds on their behalf.
When Dobbs swipes Max's lunch money, a teacher intervenes to stop him. However, Dobbs quickly turns on the charm and asks the teacher how his latest stock recommendation played out for her. When she excitedly tells him that the pick turned out well, she immediately forgets why she approached in the first place as she asks Dobbs to recommend another position.
The teachers who ought to see how Dobbs is exploiting the students at school turn a blind eye to his misdeeds because he benefits them. In this way, they become surrogates for the petty bourgeoisie, who choose to be blind to the evils of capitalism because the system works for them, even if the benefits result in the direct exploitation of the lower classes, or in this case, the students.
Few of the students are immune to Dobbs' tyranny with the exception of Max's other primary bully: Troy (Noel Fisher). Troy appears to be the only other student who thrives within the school's oppressive milieu. Unlike other students, who are harshly punished for speaking out of turn, and showing up late to class, Troy is allowed to roam the halls freely, terrorizing kids at random with no apparent repercussions.
In fact, the only time the school appears to take interest in Troy is when he experiences a mental breakdown at the hands of Max, following a prank. Troy is removed from class and rehabilitated in therapy until he is released back into the school, free to carry on harassing and beating up other students with complete impunity. (Now where have we seen that before?)
Troy revels in the fear that his mere presence invokes, and only respects Dobbs, who he often accompanies as a sort of enforcer. Because he monopolizes violence, enforces his own concept of social order to the detriment of everyone around him, and upholds Dobbs' predatory behaviors with force, Troy is a thinly veiled symbol for the police, who, within capitalist frameworks, exist primarily to protect the interest of private property holders.
Mocking of Liberalism
By the film's end, Max has dug himself quite a hole. All of his bullies have their sights set on him, and are ready to pounce once they track him down. However, by appealing to his fellow students' shared hatred for Dobbs and Troy, Max is able to rally his classmates to attack them and toss them in the dumpster in the school's parking lot.
However, in a tongue-and-cheek scene, Max seems to have a moment of clarity where he stops the mob of empowered students and implores them to consider whether them throwing Dobbs and Troy into the dumpster would make them no different from the bullies.
This seems to echo a tenant of liberalism which asserts that all political positions deserve equal consideration in the marketplace of ideas and tends to condemn direct action, instead asserting that political interests should negotiate their demands through democratic processes even when their political opponents don't. The anarchist criticism of this belief, however, is that direct action in the interest of social liberation is morally distinguishable from direct action in the interest of oppression, and that forces interested in thwarting democratic processes, naturally, cannot always be negotiated with using democracy.
But in line with its anarchist undertones, the film plays Max's impassioned speech for laughs as the students take a moment to ponder before deciding that they do, in fact, want to throw Dobbs and Troy into the dumpster, and do so while celebrating the bullies' defeat.
The film's overarching anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian themes can be best summarized in the scene that foreshadows its eventual conclusion. When Donald, Max's dad, is trying to explain why they have to move, saying that "Sometimes in life, you got to do things that you don't want to do because other people who have power over you tell you to do them." Our anarchist hero challenges this, telling his dad, "If you rise up and show that you're not afraid, those people will no longer have control over your life."
Whether you personally buy that Max Keeble's Big Move is an intentionally anarchistic movie, it's difficult to ignore the ways in which the filmmakers seem to inject timely socio-political criticisms within the film, and eventually conclude it with an uprising of the oppressed class against their oppressors.
Or, if you're a normal person, you can just enjoy it with a bucket of popcorn. But don't consider this a recommendation because it's a pretty tough watch largely built on physical humor that's more appropriate for a younger audience with whom the explicitly leftist themes won't likely resonate.