Back in 2003, a whole voting-age-person ago, I wrote about the 1984 documentary STREETWISE, along with a fictional movie somewhat inspired by it, and by the same director, called AMERICAN HEART. The latter is interesting, the first is a straight up masterpiece. You can read that review (though I’m embarrassed of a few lines – nothing too bad, but I was stupid back then) but the gist is that STREETWISE is an incredible movie about a group of teenage runaways who used to hang out on the block between 1st and 2nd and Pike in Seattle. Kind of the main character was a 14 year old girl nicknamed Tiny. She lived in an abandoned hotel with her boyfriend Rat, had a badass red jacket and mullet, also the poor girl was a prostitute and they actually had footage of her getting picked up by the world’s worst grandpas. She said she hated doing but she liked the money and kinda laughed about it. The movie vividly illustrates that some of these people you walk past on the street every day maybe have it even harder than you would’ve guessed, and also are just really interesting people worthy of love and compassion that they don’t get much of.
Of course I live in Seattle, and back when I first saw it I walked near there every day on my way to work, so the movie haunted me for a long time. As I wrote in the review, “It kind of feels like spying on ghosts or something. After watching the movie you find yourself trying to calculate how old these people would be now and guess if they’re still alive. Would you recognize them if you saw them walking around somewhere?”
Well, there are three pieces of news here. One, this great movie that was only available on VHS in the U.S. is finally easy to see because Criterion released it on blu-ray and DVD on Tuesday. Two, it comes complete with the 2016 followup film, TINY: THE LIFE OF ERIN BLACKWELL. Three, that’s a great movie too.
Decades later, Tiny – now usually called Erin – lives somewhere outside of Seattle, where there’s Mariners hats but not so many streets. She literally has ten kids (five boys, five girls) and plenty of dogs. She always loved dogs, we know from the first movie. (She also has some sort of access to horses, another dream of hers.)
The kids are all adorable. The younger ones attend to her lovingly, bring her her pills and coffee, unpack the groceries like a coordinated drill team, play basketball, try to run fast, ride scooters, play with Barbies, learn about crabs. Some of the older ones spend time in and out of juvie and have drug addictions. We watch one son taking care of his infant son, laid on an adult sized bed in a messy apartment, as his voiceover talks about only having to smoke heroin once in the morning to feel normal, how much it costs, that his girlfriend disapproves. Just like their mom, these kids are shockingly open about their lives, and very easy to sympathize with even when they make terrible choices.
Later, when an outwardly straight-laced daughter takes a sharp turn into addiction, Erin keeps saying things like “She never told us why she did it.” But of course, we can see the cycle in the movie. Their mom still hasn’t kicked methadone, and is defensive when confronted about it. In some cases she caused damage to their development by using while pregnant with them. But she herself grew up not knowing who her father was, saying, “For all I know he could be one of these dates going around, I could’ve dated him for all I know.” Her alcoholic mom, we’re reminded in a clip from STREETWISE, mused that she couldn’t stop her 13 year old daughter from being a prostitute because she wouldn’t listen anyway. And she was impressed by how much money she made.
But grown up Erin still visits her mom, who she repeatedly insists she loves but was never close with. Likewise, all of her kids talk about how much they love her, the youngest ones reading from stories they wrote in Malickian voiceover, talking about their dreams about her, how pretty she is. And we only really see an outburst when her oldest, eventually reunited after being raised in foster care, criticizes her addiction. Even when Erin calls the cops to bring her sons back to juvie – which happens more than once – they go calmly without making a scene. And then she visits them. One apologizes. They seem like such sweethearts.
In many ways they have it better than Erin did when she was Tiny. As every parent hopes for. For all her faults she shows them she loves them, and that she doesn’t want them to harm themselves, and they also have each other, and the youngest have a father in their lives. And they don’t feel they have to turn tricks. But they also have to deal with some things she never did – one talks of feeling alienated as a mixed-race kid, and apparently is being harassed by racists at school, something Erin doesn’t seem particularly understanding about even when complaining to the school about it over the phone.
They all – at least the older ones – know about their mother’s past, in part because some know their fathers were unknown johns, in part because they seem aware of the movie and ongoing project. Throughout the movie, Mary Ellen Mark, the late photographer whose Life magazine photo essay on Seattle street kids (starring Tiny) spawned STREETWISE, sits with Erin looking at the old photos on a tablet and asking her about them. And the kids see footage from the movie and since – 1990 Erin with big 1990 hair, facing teenage motherhood. In one crushing scene, a grown son heckles footage of his mother visiting him in foster care, asking how anyone could willingly give up their children, before revealing that he has children he’s not able to see.
In briefly describing this family’s situation I worry I make them sound like cautionary tales. They’re certainly the type of people often scapegoated by ghouls who like to preach about bootstraps to people who never had boots and keep getting stomped on by other peoples’. What’s so great about these movies is the non-judgmental, humanistic lens they show all people through. They put us in a time and place, whether it’s in front of Liberty Loans in 1983 or the godforsaken suburb you need to move to now for any chance at affording a house. You feel like you get to know and like these people, and there’s something nice about their frankness, that they don’t usually try to hide their mistakes and weaknesses. As you get to know about their lives you can see where some of those things come from, though they don’t tend to complain about it or ask for your pity.
I’m sure there are millions of them out there, but you’d have to be a total fuckin piece of shit asshole motherfucker to watch young Tiny doing what she did, without any adult ever figuring out how to help her, and then not have some sympathy for her now, or for her children who have been through what they’ve been through. It seems kind of miraculous that Erin is still alive (some of her co-stars in STREETWISE are dead by suicide, AIDS, stabbing, shooting, or the Green River Killer), and despite some really horrifying choices we watched her make as a young mother, she seems in some ways like a good mother. Her kids, no matter how troubled, all seem to have turned out bright and kind and forgiving of her. One even explains why she’s proud that her mom was a prostitute.
The Criterion disc also includes the shorts Tiny at 20 and Erin – where the post-STREETWISE/pre-TINY footage in TINY comes from – plus ‘Streetwise’ Revisited: Rat, which catches up with that little fucker who poetically opened the movie jumping off a bridge and ditched Tiny saying he had to go to Miami to break his best friend out of jail. He watches footage of that and says “I could be such an asshole.” But he grew up, did some time, fell in love, has kids and grandkids, owns a tow truck business, and seems to be doing great.
There’s also a short on there called The Amazing Plastic Lady, which is not about anybody from STREETWISE, or anybody in the same country as STREETWISE, but it’s kind of related anyway. It’s about a guy who runs a small circus in India, and he explains how he helps kids get off the streets and out of abusive families and teaches them to be contortionists and stuff to perform with his troupe. He says alot of nice stuff about how much he protects them and teaches them life skills, but you wonder if maybe he’s totally full of shit. Especially when one girl’s mom talks about sending her to the circus and the checks that she gets from it.
I’m not trying to judge and the short isn’t either. But it’s a whole lot of people talking around something that’s very sad. I guess it doesn’t have to take place on blocks you know for it to haunt you.
P.S. This 1993 Nightline episode revisiting STREETWISE ten years later is very sad, and poor 24-year-old Erin looks simultaneously 14 and 44. But there’s a part that shows you how much Mary Ellen Mark really cared about Erin and tried to help her, not just document her problems.