Transcript of the film Streetwise
1985 92min
Run Clip


New York Times

Streetwise (1985)



Published: April 2, 1985

HERE is a way, as demonstrated in the documentary ''Streetwise,'' of having a free meal: phone in an order for a pizza, preferably a pizza no one else would want (pineapple-and- pepperoni is the choice of the boy demonstrating this technique). Call from a pay phone near the restaurant, and stay by the telephone until the restaurant calls back to make sure the order is legitimate. After that, wait in the parking lot. It won't take an hour before one lukewarm pineapple-and-pepperoni pizza finds its way to a Dumpster, which you can then raid.

''Streetwise,'' a study of young teen-age vagrants living in Seattle, began as an article (by Cheryl McCall) and photo-essay (by Mary Ellen Mark) in Life magazine. As a feature film, produced by Miss McCall and directed by Martin Bell, it still has the quality of a photo-essay observing a number of homeless teen- agers without structuring a narrative or otherwise commenting on what is seen. This shapelessness, and the unacknowledged presence of the camera in what seem to be small, intimate moments, would hurt the film if its interview footage were not so unmistakably authentic and, at times, so wrenching. ''Streetwise'' has its touches of sensationalism, but much of it is all too real.

One of the film's young subjects is Tiny, a 14-year-old prostitute who says that, for all she knows, one of the older men she ''dates'' (e.g., visits briefly in his automobile) could be her father. Tiny's mother, a waitress with a drinking problem, has married a man her daughter doesn't get along with; ''stepdads'' are a big problem for several of the girls who are interviewed. The camera follows Tiny to visit her mother on the job and have a free hamburger, and then goes along on several visits home. The mother, who looks not much older than Tiny but a great deal wearier, thinks her daughter's prostitution is ''just a phase'' she will outgrow.

Tiny's sometime boyfriend is Rat, the pizza expert, who looks even younger than she and, like most of the interviewees, has a number of survival tips. We are told how to earn money by giving blood even if you are underage, how to live in an abandoned building, why it's good to have the management suspicious of you in a restaurant. ''They usually set you right by the cash register if you look young and like you have no money, so they can see you,'' Rat explains. ''But right by the cash register is right near the door, so that works out fine.''

One of the things that gives ''Streetwise'' its impact is an event the film makers could not have anticipated: the suicide of one of the half-dozen subjects they studied most closely. The film does not overemphasize the sordidness of street life or the bleak prospects it holds for these people's futures (if anything, many of the interviewees are captured at the height of their energy and bravado). But the sight of a 16-year-old's funeral attended by one parent, three social workers and just about no one else is as sad and moving a commentary as any other that could have been offered.

''Streetwise'' will be shown at the Museum of Modern Art tonight at 8:30 and tomorrow at 6 P.M. as part of the New Directors/New Films series.

Surviving in Seattle

STREETWISE, directed and photographed by Martin Bell; edited by Nancy Baker; music by Tom Waits; produced by Cheryl McCall; released by Angelika Films. At Roy and Niuta Titus 1 Theater, Museum of Modern Art, as part of the New Directors/New Films series. Running time: 92 minutes. This film has no rating. WITH: Tiny, Dewayne, Shadow, Shellie, Patti, Munchkin, Kim, Lulu
Video: Early morning on Rainbow Bridge, Rat leaps eighty feet into the water.