STREETWISE is an unflinching look at the lives of young teenagers who have fallen through the cracks of society and landed on the streets. In true cinema-verite fashion, the filmmakers present their dozen or so subjects without comment, letting them brag and bluster and play for the
camera. The end effect, ironically, is a particularly true portrait of American adolescence in general, as it shows itself in the worst possible situations.
In 1983, Mary Ellen Mark published a series of her photographs of Seattle street children in Life magazine. With text by Cheryl McCall, "Streets of the Lost" generated so much attention that Mark and McCall returned to Seattle a few months later, accompanied by Mark's husband Martin Bell, a
British filmmaker. Their goal was to capture on the more vivid medium of film some of the children whose confidences they had won, and to do so quickly, before these particular children drifted away or succumbed to the various dangers their surroundings posed.
Among the children who drift through the film are Rat, 17, whose nickname accurately describes his scrawny appearance; Erin, nicknamed (also appropriately) "Tiny," a 14-year-old prostitute who has accumulated a collection of sexually transmitted diseases before getting her first period; Lulu, a
belligerent 19-year-old lesbian who sees herself as something of a savior; DeWayne, 16, sickly and stunted by malnutrition; and Shellie, 18, on the run from her newest stepfather.
Having gained the trust of their subjects, the filmmakers' camera records them in their daily activities. The girls look for "dates." The boys panhandle, talk about rolling "queers," and flash guns that may help them get money in ways they prefer not be shown on film. Rat shows where he lives, in
a condemned hotel with no electricity, heat, or water. His companion, Jack, who looks to be in his late 20s, teaches him about street life. Together they demonstrate the best ways to find edible food in dumpsters.
The filmmakers are never heard or seen, but their presence is inescapable: we constantly wonder about the conditions under which these children have allowed themselves to be filmed. It often seems as if they are consciously playing to the camera. But that becomes the heart of this film. Of course
they're playing to the camera. Role-playing is what all adolescents do--trying on different poses and postures to see which ones fit, which ones will buffer them from the world they have to deal with. The difference between them and children with better support systems is that these kids are
playing these games for real: they're struggling to act like adults without having had the years of rehearsal needed for such an arduous role. In the scenes where a few of them visit their parents, we see just how ill-prepared they are for that role. Tiny's mother, an alcoholic with an abusive
husband, talks about her daughter in cliches that would be blackly humorous if they weren't so chilling: "She's grown up quite a bit since she's been on the street....[Prostitution is] just a phase she's going through now." DeWayne's father, in prison for a long spell, tries to lecture his son on
the evils of smoking through the clouds of his own tobacco.
Arrested for selling marijuana, DeWayne commits suicide in jail. It's a sad irony that STREETWISE wouldn't have had the impact it does without his death, which shows how wide the gulf is between what these kids say and what they feel. As a plea for help for runaway children, STREETWISE may or may
not be any more useful than hundreds of television news programs on the same subject. But as a window into the soul of adolescence, it is shockingly revealing. (Violence, nudity, adult situations, substance abuse, extreme profanity.)
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- Released: 1985
- Rating: NR
- Review: STREETWISE is an unflinching look at the lives of young teenagers who have fallen through the cracks of society and landed on the streets. In true cinema-verite fashion, the filmmakers present their dozen or so subjects without comment, letting them brag a… (more)