In 1983 Life magazine featured an article called “Streets of the Lost”, written by Cheryl McCall with accompanying photographs by Mary Ellen Mark. The topic was the homeless and/or downtrodden teens of Seattle, kids who form their own loose civilization on the streets, surviving through prostitution, pimping, stealing, dumpster diving, donating blood; whatever it takes. Mark eventually convinced her husband Martin Bell that there was more to be discovered, and that making a documentary would be a worthwhile endeavor. And thus the uncompromising, devastating, sprawling, intimate, fragile Streetwise was born.
Its uncommon narrative throughline prompts an involvement of the same ilk as, well, a narrative feature. Not that it ever feels anything less than real, but the kind of investment, and the particular type of attention it summons, doesn’t resemble how one normally engages with a documentary (even a character driven one). Just how did Martin Bell and company capture, and then access and shape, this footage?
Critically, Martin Bell comes to these kids on their turf, on their level. Somehow, someway, there is no condescension, sentimentality, exploitation, or judgment expressed towards the subjects. They are given voices no matter what it is they have to say, whether it’s troubling or naïve or heartbreaking or offensive.
Though fourteen-year old Erin ‘Tiny’ Blackwell is the resilient heart of Streetwise, we get to know many kids, both centrally and peripherally, throughout. The street scenes counter and fill out the form, this insular community stitched together and then placed contextually within the environment of their time. Snippets of radio hits filter in and out of the audio for split seconds and city folk flood the concrete. It would be easy to mistake them for a bunch of students standing in the hallways between classes. They are a mix of romanticism and hard knocks. They are immature yet hardened. They are at once protective of each other but out for their own survival, and as we see, manipulation and con jobs pop up as survival of the fittest takes hold. They veer away from self-pity and their directness services the tone.
They talk their pasts and present so nonchalantly, their circumstances normalized so horror is just part of the conversation, not carrying the weight it should. In one scene, a group of four has a ‘he raped me too’ discussion with such a casual air they might as well be saying “Hey, I’m wearing those jeans too”. This discussion wasn’t even about rape in their histories, but about being raped recently by the same individual as two girls warn another not to go into business with the pimp in question.
Parents are the common denominator, either present with love nowhere near conducive to good parenting, or absent as we hear runaways talking on a payphone to their parents. Loads of shitty stepfathers lie spoken of in the margins.
Streetwise is like a harrowing vision of kids playing dress-up—but so complex and textured that a simple description such as that proves reductive. There are unconscionably moving scenes in their own right, which has little to do with poverty. Tiny’s farewell with Rat is the most beautiful scene never written. An achingly real conversation that says more about teenage crushes, loneliness, companionship, unrequited feelings, parting ways and the coded communications of young people than you are likely to find anywhere else. “You should have figured it out by now”.
Streetwise is that rare masterpiece (seriously, it’s in my top 15 films ever made and sits with Stop Making Sense as my favorite film of the 1980’s). Receiving attention in its day, at least in the form of an Oscar nod, it has been largely forgotten in the years since, maintaining a small but fervent fan base. Recently, a Kickstarter by Bell and Mark for a follow-up on Erin titled Tiny Revisited exceeded its set goal, so hopefully the end product prompts a Streetwise resurgence, however small. It’s difficult to find in physical media and only exists on. But it is on youtube! So do yourself a favor and watch it! It’s the most confident recommendation I could think to give to anyone. Everyone should see it. It is essential viewing.
This is a difficult film for me to write about, so I hope these serve as rough introductory thoughts about it. Streetwise is, quite simply, journalistic portraiture at its finest.