Martin Bell's Streetwise is an intimate, gritty portrait of the lives of nine desperate teenagers living on the streets of Seattle in the 1980s. Streetwise's styling is very much a work of Cinéma vérité, one in which the filmmakers attempt to be as unobtrusive as possible, avoiding artificiality in an attempt to provide as truthful a portrait of these character's lives as possible. The children which Streetwise documents come from various backgrounds, some runaways by choice, others simply victims of circumstance, but they all share the same struggle now, one in which they are forced to adapt in order to survive. Observing quite a few children, including Tiny, a teen prostitute, DeWayne, a street hustler, and Shellie, a baby-faced blonde who is new to the streets, Streetwise reveals children whose actions and general perspective on life are well beyond their years, chronicling their day-to-day existence and interactions with each other, and the mainstream, populace way of life. The humanism of Streetwise is without question its most powerful attribute, revealing how the harshness of this environment can force mutual companionship among the less fortunate, with older street kids even becoming mentors towards the younger children. Make no mistake, these characters are still very abrasive, by and large, but Streetwise makes this volatile quality feel completely warranted due to its ability to visually capture the harsh environment in which they spend their day-to-day. While no violence is ever shown on screen, there is a palpable sense of danger lurking throughout Streetwise, as the film exhibits how this lifestyle leaves one feeling very naked, completely lacking any sense of security in this type of lifestyle. While each of the film's subjects are compelling, the story of DeWayne is perhaps the most emotionally resonant. He is a young street hustler headed down the same path of his father, a man who is currently in jail. DeWayne is a victim of circumstance, with his only legal guardian being in prison, and one of the most powerful scenes in the entire film takes place at this prison, where DeWayne's father lectures him to be smarter about his life. Without going into details, things don't end well for DeWayne, and the through-line of his character provides the film's most powerful denouement of this type of tragic circumstances, offering up the notion that these young individuals could end up finding more peace in death than life, given their circumstances, a harrowing idea to even fathom. Featuring an observant, unobtrusive eye, Martin Bell's Streetwise is a powerful and humanistic documentary about a group of teenage street kids, each of which shares many similarities but also differences in their struggles to survive in this harsh environment they inhabit.
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