Halle Berry, Rosario Dawson, Tiffany Haddish, Jon Bon Jovi, Sanaa Latham, Jewel and Rebecca Gayheart-Dane. No, it’s not the all-star cast of an upcoming Netflix movie. Rather, it’s a listing of the celebrities on display in director Rotimi Rainwater’s documentary about the plight of homeless youth in America. It just goes to show that, if you’re attempting to educate people about a disturbing subject, there’s no underestimating the power of celebrity. The plethora of famous faces in the film, for which Dawson and Jewel also served as executive producers, should certainly help Lost in America reach audiences it otherwise wouldn’t.
Rainwater, who previously wrote an indie drama, 2013’s Sugar, about a homeless young woman, clearly has an affinity for the subject. He was himself homeless for nearly a year on the streets of Orlando, Florida, after he was discharged from the Navy because his mother became gravely ill with cancer. His passionate desire to educate people about the tragic situation comes through loud and clear in the documentary, which profiles several homeless youths while exploring the issues that have contributed to the crisis.
We’re thus introduced to such homeless people as 17-year-old Calub, who sleeps in a Denver highway underpass; 22-year-old Denard, whose homosexuality led to him being rejected by his parents and his church; 27-year-old Crystal, who was lured into sex trafficking after becoming orphaned when she was 12; and 19-year-olds Makayla and Conner, whose drug addiction issues resulted in their living on the streets of Seattle. In one of the film’s more dramatic episodes, the couple goes missing, and director Rainwater personally goes searching for them. He eventually manages to find them, only to be told by their respective parents that they want nothing to do with them unless they’re drug-free.
That level of personal interaction is what gives the doc its unique power, certainly more so than the standard-issue listing of undeniably horrific statistics (“5,000 youth die on the streets of America every year”). Or the well-meaning but generally familiar-sounding comments by the aforementioned celebrities, several of whom, such as Jewel, suffered periods of homelessness themselves. (Haddish is described as a “foster care survivor.”) Their commitment to the cause is illustrated not only by their philanthropic endeavors but also such gestures as Miley Cyrus having a homeless young man go onstage to accept her MTV award for her “Wrecking Ball” video.
The documentary provides a brief history of the homeless crisis, which began in full force with the 1980s Reagan-era budget cuts of government programs that forced many people onto the streets. (He’s shown in an archival clip derisively commenting on “the people who are homeless by choice.”) Efforts to solve the problem in recent years, including a bill co-sponsored by Sens. Patrick Leahy and Susan Collins, have largely stalled, with the Republican-led Senate rejecting it because of its special provision for LGBT youth. This, despite the fact that 40 percent of homeless youth, some 400,000 people, identify themselves as LGBT. Leahy is one of several politicians interviewed in the film, although Collins, who has never met a camera she didn’t like, is conspicuously absent.
Lost in America (which unfortunately bears the same title as the 1985 Albert Brooks comedy) proves more than a little rough-hewn in its technical aspects, and Rainwater’s narration is not exactly free of clichés (“So what have we learned?” he dramatically asks near the film’s conclusion). But the doc serves the valuable purpose of shedding a much-needed spotlight on a problem that, as anyone who’s recently walked on any city’s streets can attest, only seems to be getting worse.
Production companies: Village Entertainment, Go Spectrum Studios, Chhibber Mann Productions, Lynchpin Productions
Distributor: Indican Pictures
Director-screenwriter: Rotimi Rainwater
Producers: Brent C. Johnson, Steven V. Vasquez Jr., Mike C. Manning, Rotimi Rainwater, Jorge L. Rivera
Executive producers: Brandon Bennett-Tritch, Allan Camaisa, Megan Camaisa, Vinny Chhibber, Rosario Dawson, Tom DeSanto, James Hawthorn, Blake Johnson, Jewel Kilcher, Mary Lynch, Ari Palitz, Randy Sinquefield, John Teotico, Steven V. Vasquez Jr., Matt Von Bergen, Garrett Wareing, Rooter Wareing, Brian Wilkins
Director of photography: Steven V. Vasquez Jr.
Editors: James R. White, Sean Yates
Composer: Tammy Hyler