Since 1984, Abacus Federal Savings Bank has been serving the financial needs of New York City’s bustling Chinatown community, making the neighbourhood branch the 2,531st largest bank in the United States; roughly 1/100th the size of Bank of America. It’s also a family business, founded by lawyer and Chinese-American Thomas Sung – who saw the need for Chinese customers to be seen as more than just depositors by larger banks – and run day-to-day by his daughters Jill and Vera. Like most businesses, there have been a fair share of hiccups at Abacus, but thanks to a handful of particularly unscrupulous employees, Abacus was unfairly the only banking institution in New York – a city known as the epicentre of American finance – that was charged with criminal fraud in the wake of the housing market collapse between 2008 and 2010.

Accomplished veteran documentarian Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Life Itself) embeds himself with the Sung family as they attempt to mount a lengthy and expensive defense of their institution in the poignant and incendiary Abacus: Small Enough to Jail. It’s no surprise that a filmmaker like James would once again find himself gravitating towards gregarious, largely sympathetic characters like the Sung family, but Abacus is unlike any other film in the director’s storied career. James expertly focuses on what this family represents within the larger context of a broken American legal system that only goes after relatively small potatoes offenses, while letting larger institutions that the American economy has become dependent on get away with far worse without so much as a slap on the wrist.

After several employees were accused of taking bribes (some backhandedly excused as “gifts” by way of a clever misinterpretation of Chinese culture and practice), Abacus handled things admirably and efficiently, reporting the misdeeds committed by certain employees to the proper authorities, firing all those involved, and making inroads to atone for what happened. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. and his office (which at the time charges were filed included Sung’s other daughter, Chanterelle) took the Sung family’s reporting and ended up filing 180 various fraud charges against the bank. While many, including the Sungs, will admit that there was at least one very bad apple in the bunch (notably Ken Yu, who’s one of the most unreliable, self-serving witness in true crime history), these charges made no sense to the few reporters bothering to cover the case, and most financial insiders. With so many banks wallowing in millions of defaulting loans and mortgages, why would the DA’s office openly and fervently target a community bank that, improprieties aside, had only 9 of their 3,000 loans default?

The simplest answer contained within Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (a title acting as a flip side to “too big to fail”) is definitely correct: to create a PR driven smoke show that makes it look like the Manhattan DA is tough on corporate crime without going after any of the biggest perpetrators. Going after a national or global bank as opposed to a local, family operated, independent branch would mean a lot more money, resources, and man hours to go up against companies that have literally limitless financial resources and connections to get out of such situations. Vance and his team going up against the Sungs was a sound, if tactless, nearsighted, and uncomfortably racist way to make someone pay in the wake of one of the country’s biggest financial collapses, but the Manhattan DA had the unfortunate luck of going up against a family of lawyers willing to fight not only for their reputations, but for a neighbourhood that could be thrown into financial disarray if the bank were to suddenly disappear.

A bank is a hard thing to make someone feel any amount of sympathy towards, but James does just that with Abacus: Small Enough to Jail. While interviews with Vance, various reporters, lawyers, and jury members are eye opening and intriguingly varied in tone, it’s the moments that James spends with the Sungs over family dinners, lunchtime meetings, or conferences in kitchens that are the most telling. James has always been a masterful verite filmmaker, and he proves it again here by getting more from the Sungs in these unstaged, off-the-cuff moments than he does from formal interviews with each of the family members. Personalities begin to emerge as the daughters tirelessly crusade on behalf of their family’s business, the stress of the trial begins to take a toll on Thomas, and Thomas’ wife, Hwei Lin, who isn’t a banker, constantly reminds her husband and children that she was strongly against the family going into high finance in the first place. Like most families, they nitpick over small stuff, but here they warmly unite out of love and the righteous belief that they have done all they can to be transparent.

The trial drags out so long for the Sung family that one forgets over time what started everything, and James’ film becomes less of a documentary about financial malfeasance and more of a human drama focusing on people in gruelling circumstances that they shouldn’t have to go through. Very early on, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail stops being about banking and starts being about the strength of a loving family unit. James asks viewers to examine what we look for in our justice system when it comes to large scale corporate crime, but also what we value as human beings. James wants viewers to ask how and why a trial like this could happen, but also what the viewer would do if they were placed in the middle of a legal morass that’s impossible to rationally and factually understand. There’s a surreal, almost farcical quality to James’ work here that’s more scary than funny, but that’s part of the point. James cuts through the smoke and uncovers the flesh and blood people at the heart of one of the more bizarre fraud trials in U.S. history.