Friday, December 5, 2008

Streetwise (1984) - Grade: A

Streetwise (1984)
Grade: A

“Streetwise” is a film that I watched for my Intro to Screen Arts class. It is a documentary from 1984 that chronicles the lives of kids living on the streets of Seattle. It is a film that reminds me that I need to see more documentaries because this was completely heartbreaking and fascinating.

While the film never outright blames parents for being the cause of the childrens problems through their various situations, it might as well have because it becomes very clear of the parenting issues that these children have had to deal with. Some do not know their parents. Some have parents but ran away from them. Some have parents that we see in the film who clearly care about their children which makes it all the more shocking as to some of the things these parents say. Erin (14), also known as Tiny, and her mother spend a lot of time together. She is married to a man named Tom who is currently in jail if I understood correctly and had broken her mother’s leg. Erin does not like Tom but the mother seems to attribute it to the concept of children never liking a stepfather figure as opposed to the oh so shocking revelation that maybe this guy is a prick. We never see him. I do not remember what he was in jail for but I know they were still together. The woman is an alcoholic and knows her daughter is a prostitute. She is not all that upset by it and claims it is just Erin going through “a phase”. Whaaaaaa? I’m not joking; she said this. Then we have another girl whose name I cannot remember talking about why she does not like her stepfather; he raped her multiple times. The daughter says she told her mother, who does not remember it and defends her husband by saying “he does not do it anymore”. Something that amazed me with this film is how open the kids are. These girls talk about being raped as if it were a minor inconvenience. It is such a normal part of life that it is simply accepted. You move on from it. Erin is talking to Kim about the dangers of prostituting saying you can get beat up and raped and it is passed off in a way that sounds like any other conversation.

Ratt is a kid who was sick of being in the middle of his parents divorce and ran away to Seattle. Dewayne is a kid whose father is in jail who he visits. While his father clearly cares about him, again he does not really know how to be a parent and unfortunately as Dewayne’s father himself puts it “unfortunately I’m all you have”. There are other people we meet but Dewayne, Ratt and Erin are the three main kids if I had to pick them. While one wonders how much is manipulated I would imagine that events remain more than moderately unstaged. This felt authentic to me.

There are several very disturbing moments one involving Erin getting into a car with an old man and her head disappearing immediately as he drove off, clearly meaning she has begun to go down on him as soon as he starts driving. Another involved Kim’s explaining how she got into prostitution, because she went to Seattle to bring a friend back when she had learned she was whoring and then the friend told her how easy and fun it was and how much money you made doing it and then she slowly began to try it. The idea that an adolescent girl could manage to convince herself that what she is doing is fun horrifies me. A particularly disturbing moment comes when Ratt and his adult friend raid “their dumpster” and explain how easy it is to tell how long food has been there because they have one particular dumpster that they check everyday and we see them eating already eaten chicken legs out of the bag. These kids somehow manage to keep everything at bay. Which is something that quite possibly disturbed me the most. These kids seemed to act basically like other kids their age outside of everything they did. They are so accustomed to this lifestyle that they can carry on and be relatively ok and smile and laugh. While I am happy that they manage to find little bits of happiness it amazes me that a child can get to a point where they become that accustomed to a certain life. This goes along with the comment I made about how disturbing it was to see the girls talking about what has happened to them in a way that if you hadn’t known what they were talking about would have assumed that they were talking about how their day at school was.

The most disturbing moment however was that sometime during the shooting of the film, 16 year old Dewayne hung himself. At the very near end point of the film we learn that he has committed suicide and we see his funeral. About 6 people were there including his father and adults he had worked with through social services. It goes without saying that this was devastating. We had gotten to know this kids throughout the film and all of a sudden we see a coffin and learn what happened. This event really exemplifies the nature of the film. That and the fact that other kids in the film died in unfavorable circumstances. Erin is still alive however, she has a husband with 9 kids (by several different men) and has apparently recently cleaned up. I do not know if this is still true. Ratt I guess drives a truck and spent some time in prison. One moment of the film that really moved me was when Ratt visits Erin to say goodbye because he is leaving Seattle on Sunday and she won’t be out of jail or wherever she was until Monday. She jokes around for a bit but then starts to cry and he does not understand why she is crying. She says “You should know by now”. He still does not get the hint and says “ I gotta go” and they hug for a while and he leaves without really understanding her feelings towards him. We see her on the bed crying after he has gone. Ratt is 16 but looks 12 by the way (at the most).

“Streetwise” transported me to another world for 90 minutes and showed me a completely different way of living that felt authentic and unfettered with and that made its point by not interfering with things and letting us see the way things are with our own eyes. An extremely moving film.

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