Saturday, August 26, 2023

#2,924. Streetwise (1984) - Documentaries


In an early scene from Martin Bell’s extraordinary 1984 documentary Streetwise, which follows a group of kids living on the streets of Seattle, we’re treated to a montage set to a blues-infused rendition of the classic children’s song “The Teddy Bear’s Picnic” (performed by Baby Gramps). It shows a bunch of kids hanging out, laughing, and generally enjoying each other’s company.

At this point, we haven’t met many of the youngsters who will be featured in the movie. Yet we sense, during this musical aside, that there is a certain irony in the choice of song, that what is about to transpire over the next 90-some minutes will be anything but a picnic.

Sure enough, Streetwise isn’t so much a “picnic” as it is a gut punch, focusing on kids who, because of their troubled home lives, choose to live on the streets.

Bell and his team shine a light on a fair number of these children, many of whom have begged, stolen, or prostituted themselves to get by. Inspired by the 1983 Life Magazine article “Streets of the Lost”, Streetwise introduces us to Rat, a young teen who has teamed up with the much older Jack. Rat mentions, several times, how important it is to have someone watching your back, and he trusts Jack completely. The two have a strong friendship. They live in an abandoned hotel, and search for food in restaurant dumpsters. Rat explains that, to make this dumpster buffet work, you have to have regular dumpsters, which he calls “regs”, so that you know what food is fresh and what isn’t. He and Jack also run a scam on a pizza shop, ordering a pizza from a pay phone that they will never buy. In an hour or so, that pizza will make its way to the dumpster, at which point they’ll grab it.

Of all the youngsters featured in Streetwise, Rat has the keenest survival instincts. It is interesting to note that he is also one of the only kids whose family or caretakers we never meet (unlike many of the others, Rat’s family is hundreds of miles away, in Sacramento).

Also featured prominently in Streetwise is Erin, nicknamed “Tiny”. Early on, Tiny visits a doctor, afraid she may have contracted a venereal disease. Tiny turns tricks for a living (like many of the other girls who prostitute themselves, Tiny calls her customers “dates”). Tiny admits she has had venereal diseases before, and also tells the doctor she may be pregnant (because one “date” refused to wear a condom). The doctor then asks when her last menstrual cycle was, and Tiny says she had her second one a few weeks ago. When the doctor asks her to clarify, Tiny said she got her first ever period a month earlier. That is because Tiny is only 14 years old.

Tiny spends a lot of time on the streets, yet she does share a home with Pat, her alcoholic mother. Pat, who knows of her daughter’s prostitution but calls it a “phase”, has re-married, and has been beaten by her new husband (who, at the time the movie was shot, was sitting in jail). Tiny does not like her stepfather. Nor does another young girl, Patti, who, in a heart-wrenching scene, argues with her mother about being “abused” by her “pervert” of a stepdad.

Then there is DeWayne, who begs for change. DeWayne is 16, yet looks much younger. During a doctor’s visit, he is told his adenoids and tonsils are inflamed, and are contributing to his stunted growth. DeWayne’s only relative is his father, who is in prison. In one very difficult scene, DeWayne visits his dad, who, after chastising his son for smoking dope and biting his fingernails, says he loves him, and that DeWayne is all he has left in the world.

Other kids are featured as well, including Roberta, who is on her way to becoming a prostitute, and Lulu, a self-proclaimed lesbian who does what she can to defend her fellow youths. At one point, Lulu drags a vagrant back to a girl he felt up as he walked past her, and forces him to apologize. Lulu is tough as nails, and we see her tenacity time and again throughout the movie.

We come to know her and the rest of these kids quite well, and director Bell does a fine job bringing us into their world. It is never pleasant. In fact, it is terrifying. As tough as some of these kids are, they are still only kids, and face real danger on the streets.

Before the movie is over, tragedy will strike one of these youngsters. So, when Streetwise ends with the same song that kicked it off, “The Teddy Bear’s Picnic”, it is more than ironic this time.

Now, it is heartbreaking.
Rating: 9 out of 10

No comments: