STREETWISE is an unsettling examination of life among homeless and abandoned children in Seattle's Tenderloin district. The film explores the daily routines of a variety of teenagers who, lacking in conventional familial supports, are forced to resort to various kinds of thievery, hustling, drug dealing, and prostitution in order to survive. Moreover, STREETWISE takes the viewer behind the scenes to examine the hopelessly deformed families from which these children sprang. The film is rendered in a nonjudgmental, observational style, with a minimum of editorializing. This approach serves to accentuate, rather than minimize, the sheer horror of the children's lives. The end result is a film which, by its very simplicity, speaks more eloquently about contemporay troubled teenagers than a dozen overwrought sociological tracts.
STREETWISE is the striking and sobering account of the daily lives of abandoned children in Seattle's seamy Tenderloin district. Directed by Martin Bell, the film was inspired by a 1983 LIFE magazine essay by Mary Ellen Mark and Cheryl McCall; McCall later served as producer of the film version. Shortly after the publication of the original essay, Bell, Mark, and McCall returned to the streets of Seattle and began accumulating hours of footage depicting the pain and daily degradation of the film's central figures. Although most of the children whose privacy is invaded are not yet old enough to vote or drive a car, they are routinely engaged in various forms of drug dealing, petty thievery, and prostitution. These are often their only means of survival.
The film is essentially plotless and consists of a series of interweaving stories, each one centered on a particular teenage denizen of the Seattle streets: Rat, age seventeen, lives in an abandoned hotel and survives by ``rolling queers'' and digging discarded food from restaurant dumpsters. Fourteen-year-old Tiny is a child prostitute who routinely ``pulls dates'' with adult men who prowl the back streets in well-appointed cars. Tiny faces the constant threat of pregnancy and venereal disease (without knowing much about either) and idly muses that, for all she knows, one of her ``dates'' might be her own father. DeWayne, age seventeen, suffers from stunted growth and chronically infected tonsils. He spends his time evading school and cadging coins from passersby. Occasionally, he pays visits to his father, a jailed arsonist and armed-robbery expert.
The film opens with the image of Rat taking a flying leap from a bridge into a sparkling, crystalline river. The image is meant to evoke the freedom, carelessness, and innocence which are supposed to be an integral part of a normal childhood, but these qualities are all but lost to the film's world-weary and prematurely wizened protagonists. Here, the carefree image of Rat swimming in a river only serves to belie the seamy reality into which Bell's camera soon guides the audience. This is no modernized Huck Finn story or some lyric passage from a picaresque novel: The film shows reality as experienced by a growing number of rootless teenagers in America's urban centers, and it is extremely difficult and unsettling to view. STREETWISE inevitably undermines the comfortable myths that are associated with childhood. These give way to scenes of grim authenticity that depict the daily lives of children, who are routinely placed in danger of death, starvation, and prostitution and who must often sell their bodies and their blood in order to survive.
Although it is rendered in the documentary style, STREETWISE ultimately bears resemblance to a number of fictional films dealing with the terrors of life on the street. The most notable of these is Brazilian director Hector Babenco's PIXOTE (1980), which is a fictionalized account of life among street kids in the slums of Sao Paulo. Both films take special care to examine life on the street from the child's point of view rather than assuming the stance of a disinterested and morally superior adult observer. This is unusual in itself, since most films which purport to examine street life rarely stray from a sophisticated, adult perspective. As rendered by adults for an adult audience, these films often display a heightened sensibility that borders on the surreal. Life on the street is stripped of its immediacy and horror and is instead imbued with film noir notions of mystery and romance. Even in films which deal in part with the abuse and exploitation of children, the stories are told from the point of view of an adult - even a benighted, psychotic one, as in Martin Scorsese's TAXI DRIVER (1976).
STREETWISE manages to convey effectively the horrors of life on the street as they are experienced by a number of brave and resilient, but nevertheless, vulnerable teenagers. It does so without falsely glamorizing their dangerous exploits or elevating their experiences to the realm of the surreal. When one watches a fourteen-year-old prostitute climb into a passing car for the purpose of performing sexual favors, or observes a fourteen-year-old who must sell his blood in order to eat, the sense of immediacy is all too real. The way of life to which STREETWISE exposes the viewer is neither exotic nor enticing to watch in a voyeuristic way. It is only tawdry and numbing.
The filmmakers capture the plight of the children as a group while still providing keen insights into the petty degradations of individual lives. The boys worry about being arrested and thrown in jail. The girls are engaged not in finding ways to avoid prostitution but in trying to decide which of the local teenage pimps will give them the best working arrangements. Shellie, a blonde sixteen-year-old, turns tricks and occasionally makes collect phone calls to her mother, with whom she bickers constantly. Eighteen-year-old Lulu is a street-hardened lesbian who intervenes in others' fights and has scrapes of her own with local policemen. In the end, there is something admirable and even heroic in the children's capacity to sustain themselves in the midst of impossible conditions. It is also irrefutably sad: As individuals, the children display a toughness and resiliency which would serve them well in other arenas of life but which here seems only tragic and premature.
The adults in this environment are uniformly bewildered and powerless to change anything. Embattled social workers make vain attempts to follow their errant charges and keep them out of jail and off the welfare rolls. Well-meaning doctors and nurses struggle to stave off the scourges of malnutrition, drug abuse, and a barrage of sexually transmitted diseases, but their counsel is sadly wasted on these desperate and uneducated children.
It is the parents, however, who provide the most striking insights into the source of the children's problems. Most of the children's misfortunes are clearly rooted in the absence of a stable, nurturing family environment. Nevertheless, the families to which these children belong - when they exist at all - scarcely present much of an alternative to the lacerating life of the street. Many of the children are runaways with no discernible family ties. The parents whom the viewer does see seem to have lost control of their own lives as well as those of their children. The rare moments of contact between them are characterized by endless bickering, emotional terrorism, and a profound lack of understanding on both sides.
Tiny takes time off from her routine (that is, her prostitution activities) to visit her alcoholic mother, who breezily dismisses her daughter's activities as ``a phase she's going through.'' The mother works as a waitress and has run through a succession of common-law husbands - ``stepdads'' with whom Tiny rarely gets along. In the course of a mundane visit, Tiny nags her mother about makeup purchases and other adolescent preoccupations, to which her mother responds, ``Don't bother me, I'm drinkin'.'' Shellie pays a similar visit to her embattled and overwhelmed mother: Together they resume an ongoing argument about Shellie's father, who repeatedly molested her and drove her out of the house.``Yes, but he doesn't do it any more,'' counters the mother, as if incestuous rape were to be equated with bad table manners.
DeWayne, undernourished and emaciated, pays a particularly pathetic visit to his father, a career criminal who is serving a thirty-year sentence for armed robbery. The scene takes place in a prison visiting room, mediated by telephones and panes of shock-proof glass. It quickly becomes a parody of the parent-child relationship. There are scattered moments in STREETWISE when the children do seem to be performing for the camera. None of these, however, exceeds the scene in which DeWayne is alternately badgered and wheedled by his father, who checks his arms for needle tracks, fatuously exhorts him to be a good boy, and then strives to remind him, ``You and me, we're all we've got,'' as if such information were any solace. In the course of scenes such as these, the makers of STREETWISE effectively undermine the romantic and misguided notion that a bad family is better than no family at all.
Bell, Mark, and McCall spent several weeks in Seattle's Tenderloin district, developing friendships with the children and gaining their precarious confidence, before attempting to shoot a single minute's worth of footage. The shooting itself was executed via long-range camera techniques and pocket recording devices, a style which was developed by Bell during his long stint as a wildlife photographer in Africa. Such techniques helped the filmmakers to gain access inobtrusively to the private and sometimes furtive moments in the children's daily routine and enabled them to record their amazingly candid assessments of their own lives.
The children's stories are told simply, without the melodramatic hyperbole which one normally associates with the subject at hand. Bell largely eschews the didactic storytelling devices which are traditionally associated with most fictional films and many message-oriented documentaries. There are no omniscient voice-overs by unseen narrators, few ominous close-ups and portentous zooms. The filmmakers' greatest achievement lies in allowing the children to tell their own stories. They also refuse to provide facile solutions to the children's problems: There are no declamations of what should be done, no mundane sociological analyses. This approach occasionally seems cold and distant, but it heightens even more effectively one's sense of outrage and horror at witnessing the slow and inane destruction of young lives.
The filmmakers achieved an amazing level of intimacy with their subjects precisely by refusing to intervene in the children's routines and falsely orchestrate their behavior. The effect is occasionally infuriating, as the viewer yearns for someone to take action and alleviate the immediate dangers and the sheer psychological horror which are faced by the film's menagerie of hustlers, petty thieves, and teenage whores. The filmmakers' refusal - or perhaps inability - to do so serves to emphasize that there are no easy solutions to the children's problems. The children and their situations are unmistakably real. They are not used solely as props for the communication of some vauge sociological idea. The audience is not reassured and then allowed to forget the horror that they have seen.
The real tragedy of the children's lives, and the inability of adults to save them, is nowhere more evident than in the scenes surrounding DeWayne's funeral. The death is a suicide: It provides the film with a stunning emotional wallop which the filmmakers themselves could not have anticipated. The funeral is attended by DeWayne's convict father, stunned social workers, and a handful of strangers. Curiously, none of DeWayne's street companions is present - an observation which perhaps emphasizes their transient and fragile allegiance to one another. DeWayne's death is certainly pointless and tragic: His life scarcely means more than the Coke can which is absentmindedly left on top of his coffin. It is also inevitable, given the harrowing scenario that STREETWISE exposes.
According to the conventions of Greek tragedy, the death of an antihero such as DeWayne is supposed to lead to the transformation of the community that surrounds him. This cannot be so in the world depicted in STREETWISE. After the funeral scenes, the children are shown going on with life in its routinely dangerous and degrading fashion. The petty humiliations continue, as do the scams and schemes for survival. The children's lives underline the unchanging nature of the scene which surrounds, enfolds, and finally devours them.
Country of Origin: USA
Release Date: 1985
Production Line: Cheryl McCall for Angelika Films; released by Angelika Films/Joseph Saleh
Director: Martin Bell
Cinematographer: Martin Bell
File Editor: Nancy Baker
Copyright (c) Magill's Survey of Cinema by Salem Press. All Rights Reserved.