Streetwise, a 1984 documentary about homeless youths surviving on the streets of Seattle, arrives to the Criterion Collection this month, collected alongside its semi-sequel from 2016, Streetwise: Tiny Revisited. The original is known for its blunt but empathetic depiction of nine teenagers from difficult backgrounds fending for themselves far too early in life. The sequel follows up on Erin Blackwell, aka Tiny, one of the main subjects of the first film, following her very difficult life over the ensuing 30 years. They’re both engaging and distressing pieces of work; the former a bit more so than the latter because of its professional level of detachment from these suffering kids.
Director Martin Bell adapted Streetwise from a photography series that his wife, Mary Ellen Mark, had produced for Life Magazine. The nine kids they follow include hustlers, prostitutes, con artists, swindlers, dealers — kids doing anything to get by. It’s a shocking set of stories that sometimes calls into question the perspective of this type of frank filmmaking. For example, it’s hard to watch young Tiny get into a car with a mark and drive off. Or listen to her describe losing her virginity before her first period. Take Dewayne, for instance, whose relationship with his incarcerated father informs a difficult life that ends far too soon by suicide at the conclusion of the the movie. It’s hard not to wonder what the ethical responsibility is for those behind the camera, capturing the intimate details of these lives.
Still, that doesn’t remove the power of Streetwise, which is an unflinching portrait of forgotten kids in an era when Seattle was viewed as America’s most livable city. The question of “why won’t they help these kids” is only overwhelming because the situation is so awful and depicted with such clarity.
The first movie was 30 years ago; the subjects’ futures can be found on Wikipedia and other sources. It’s relatively dire, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. The only one to appear in another feature-length documentary is, of course, Tiny. Streetwise: Tiny Revisited is about Tiny 30 years later, now in her 40s when she’s the mother of 10 kids and a recovering addict. Her family is a broad and diverse collection of kids all experiencing the world much differently than their mother. Her older kids never lived with her and have varying relationships with her. Some have followed in her footsteps while others are trying to make different lives for themselves. The sequel is a portrait of a family living in the aftermath of a parent’s hard life and difficult choices and is tonally much different than Streetwise. I would say it’s a non-essential supplement if you’re watching Streetwise to appreciate its historical significance, but it certainly furthers the theme of the first movie: In what are supposedly the nicest parts of America, the innocent are still being exploited in ways that will affect them and those around them for the rest of their lives.
The Blu-ray set includes four short films that were made in the interim between Streetwise and Tiny: Tiny at 20, The Amazing Plastic Lady, Erin and Streetwise Revisited: Rat. The booklet includes an essay on the film by Andrew Hedden, the original Life magazine article that inspirted the film, and a further essay by Mark about Tiny. A new audio commentary track by director Martin is also included. Lastly, the set includes a digital restoration of the original film, which was long out of print and difficult to find.
Both films are also available on the Criterion Channel, a service we at Midwest Film Journal highly endorse.