'Streetwise': Film Review

Streetwise-Publicity Still-H 2019
Courtesy of Mary Ellen Mark/Janus Films
A heartbreaking look at teenage poverty in "America's most livable city."

Martin Bell's Oscar-nominated 1984 documentary is revived with the release of its long-awaited sequel, 'Tiny.'

Intermittently over decades, director Martin Bell and the late photographer Mary Ellen Mark paid visits to Erin Blackwell, a woman who'd been the most talked-about subject of their Oscar-nominated 1984 documentary Streetwise. With the wrenching result of those visits — Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell — finally opening in New York after a Seattle premiere three years ago, producers have restored the original doc, which quietly depicted the underbelly of Seattle long before grunge proved it wasn't quite the utopia it suggested it was. A haunting visit with homeless teens who survive through panhandling and prostitution, it eschews Reagan-era moralizing to let the kids speak for themselves.

Blackwell, one of a handful of main characters here, has the most memorable look: Skinny with a spiky mullet and hard eyes, she laughs easily while speaking of the future. "I wanna be really rich," she brags, and "have three yachts." She's not going to get there while charging $40 apiece to the men who pull up in their cars for quick "dates." We go with her to a clinic, where she lists the STDs she has had and asks the health worker to clarify some details about when you can and can't get pregnant. She's 14 and recently had her first period.

The boys in the film, when possible, prefer begging or theft to prostitution. Rat, who runs around with an older partner to avoid trouble, has dumpster-diving down to a science, with "regs" where he can tell which bags of food are new and safe to eat. He takes us to his "robbin' street," but we don't witness any of that; instead, we see him adapting his panhandling patter on the fly, inviting whoever he's chatting with to play a part in the fiction and to get lost if they refuse.

Rat will happily enlist an older dude to play his father if it seems likely to earn a passerby's sympathy, but real parents are more problematic characters. Shelly, a more recent convert to streetwalking than Tiny, is the child of a woman who had seven kids and couldn't keep her husband from molesting her; her phone calls home quickly turn to nasty arguments. DeWayne, a self-described playboy, goes to visit his father in prison, and has already been on the streets long enough that he asks his dad to say hi to friends who are doing time. Tiny has regular contact with her mother, an alcoholic who works at a diner and is resigned to her daughter's profession. This is just a phase, she says. "I can't stop her."

We sit in on a couple of visits from social workers who hope to get these children to safety, and watch a spirited debate between a homeless man and a do-gooder street preacher who wants to build them a shelter. But the dubious protection of pimps is closer at hand, and the girls are matter-of-fact when discussing the rapes and beatings they've endured.

As bleak as all this is, Streetwise (which is credited to Bell, Mark and writer Cheryl McCall) is never mawkish about the kids, who for better and worse have built a community for themselves. Hanging out mostly around the Pike Place Market, now a tourist destination for free-spending foodies, the film gathers enough time-capsule glimpses of street life to give its stories a context. Its title may sound ironic, but it acknowledges the skills these kids have to acquire, quickly, to survive in a world that would rather tut-tut than make sure they have safe places to sleep and enough to eat.

Production company: Bear Creek
Distributor: Janus Films
Director: Martin Bell
Screenwriter-producer: Cheryl McCall
Executive producers: Angelika T. Saleh, Connie Nelson, Willie Nelson
Director of photography: Martin Bell
Editor: Nancy Baker
Composer: Tom Waits

92 minutes