Smith’s Verdict: ****
Reviewed by Tanner Smith
The first shot of Martin Bell’s documentary “Streetwise” is a medium-shot of a teenage boy named Rat, drenched with water and staring off into space deep in thought. It’s followed by a faraway shot of him climbing up a side-rail on a bridge and then jumping off. The camera follows his 50-foot plunge into a river. Over this is his narration:
“I love to fly. It’s just, you’re alone in peace and quiet and nothing around you but clear, blue sky. No one to hassle you, no one to tell you where to go or what to do. The only bad part about flying is having to come back down to the f*cking world.”
This sets the underlying grim tone for the whole film “Streetwise,” which is a documentary about young street people in Seattle—streetwise teenagers and young adults who lead empty lives. Most of them are homeless. Most of them are con artists. Most of them are seen roaming the busy streets of Seattle, begging for spare change. Some are prostitutes; others, pimps. It’s hard to tell which is worse—that most of them are more or less content with their freedom or that hardly anyone is helping them.
Take Erin (a.k.a. Tiny), for example. She’s a 14-year-old prostitute who cons herself into calling her clients “dates.” She sees her mother every now and then, mostly to borrow money or makeup. But the mother just figures that Tiny’s prostitution is “just a phase she’s going through.” When stating this in the film, she doesn’t seem at all concerned that Tiny might develop an STD or become pregnant by any of these “dates.” And get this—there’s even a moment in which she tells her daughter not to bug her. Why? “I’m drinkin’.”
Then there’s Dewayne, a 16-year-old beggar/thief as well as a drug addict. He doesn’t get any help from his father because he’s in jail. He does wish he was around to look out for him.
Rat, short, 17, and a loudmouth, has no help either. He lives with an older man, Jack, in an abandoned hotel and has about the same daily routines as Dewayne with no guidance, no help, and not much to care for when he finally hops a train to leave the city, which he constantly talks about with his girlfriend, Tiny, who doesn’t want him to leave.
Then there’s Shellie, a 16-year-old blonde prostitute. In probably the most upsetting moment in the film, she has an argument with her mother about what her perverted stepfather did to her when she was little and didn’t know what he was doing. Shellie sounds sad and miserable just talking about it. What is her mother’s response? “Yeah, but he doesn’t do it anymore.”
These are only four of the kids that are the subject of “Streetwise,” one of the most heartbreaking films about troubled youth that I have ever seen. This was based on a 1983 Life magazine article on a group of the homeless and/or abandoned children who roam the streets and become hookers, beggars, thieves, squatters, dealers, junkies, and hustlers. The film came about as an extension of that, as writer Cheryl McCall and photographer Mary Ellen Mark team up with director Martin Bell to first gain the trust of many of these kids for weeks, and then bring in their cameras to film their routines, eavesdrop on conversations, and explore the usual flophouses, abandoned buildings, and mean streets that these kids spend most of their days in. We even see how one of them (Rat) manages to get food for free through a trick. He orders a pizza with an odd choice of topping on it, then waits for a while until it’s tossed in a dumpster, so it’s there waiting for him.
These are not all bad kids. They know their ways of getting by, they’re tough enough to manage, they look out for each other since no one else will (one prostitute’s income even pays for the clothes of another streetwise girl), and yes they break the law, but how many legal ways are there for young people to use to care for themselves on the street?
Something I have to wonder about this film is, is any of this staged? There are many moments that are shot and edited like a “real” film, as if these people don’t notice the cameras on them or around them. Do they really want to say what they say, particularly Tiny’s mother when she tells Tiny not to bug her because she’s drinking? Or what about when Tiny breaks down during a tender moment with Rat—I sort of wondered why she didn’t just turn to the camera and ask the people around to go away? Or what about when Dewayne visits his father in prison? It plays kind of like a parody of estranged father-son relationship, as if the father is telling Dewayne what he wants people to hear. But then again, that’s probably what he wants Dewayne to hear too, which actually says a lot considering the other parents you see in this film!
However it was all done, it doesn’t make the finished product “Streetwise” any less effective. At its most tragic is in its ending when we attend the funeral of one of the kids…and it’s so empty. Only a few people, such as the deceased boy’s father, a few social workers, and some strangers, attended the funeral; not even his closest streetwise friends came to mourn. What’s worse is that even though this is a solid example showing the scenario of these kids’ lives, nothing changes after this death. After the funeral scenes, we see these kids one last time, going through their usual procedures. It says a lot about some of their futures.
NOTE: It’s worth noting that Rat and Tiny have made it out of this lifestyle since this film was released in 1985. According to Wikipedia, Rat is married with children and has grandchildren, and Tiny (I’ll just call her Erin Blackwell now) has gotten worse as time went on, until cleaning up and settling down in the mid-2000s with a husband. Another (Lulu, whom I’m sorry I forgot to mention is an 18-year-old angry lesbian who gets involved in the wellbeing of some of these kids in the film, and seen as somewhat heroic) is sadly stabbed to death soon after the film’s release.