After an economic downturn in the early ‘70s, Seattle began to work on promotional campaigns to shift Americans’ perception of the Northwestern city. By 1975, Seattle was being cited as one of the “most livable” cities in the United States by publications like Harper’s Magazine and Time. Noticing this trend, Life magazine dispatched journalist Cheryl McCall and photographer Mary Ellen Mark to the scene with the intended purpose of writing an exposé on America’s growing crisis of runaway youths. Upon touching down in Seattle and meeting a 13-year-old girl nicknamed Tiny and her fast-talking friend Rat, Mark phoned documentarian Martin Bell to meet her and film their stories; the resultant Streetwise became a landmark work of vérité filmmaking and remains one of the most touching films about precarious living in America.
Over the course of the film, Bell spends time with teenagers Rat, Tiny, Lillie, Lulu, Patti, Patrice, Munchkin, Shadow, and Shellie, all of whom have adopted different means of survival — panhandling, prostitution, scamming, drug-dealing, dumpster-diving — in order to get by. Bell avoids sensationalizing the kids’ lives by letting them be forthright before the camera and narrate their life and philosophies. “It is a privilege to be in the room and to share these stories of the unfamous,” said Bell. In bearing witness to their stories of escape from neglect, addiction, and abuse, Bell produces a document that grapples with the moral predicaments that come with reporting on at-risk-youth and criticizes America’s façade as an exemplary nation.
“Our hope is that by witnessing the everyday lives of these people the films will spark a dialog that may lead to change — to finding a solution to the complex problems created by poverty.” MARTIN BELL
Noting it was Tiny and Rat’s impressions on Mark that sparked this project, it goes without saying their wonderful personalities remain one of the film’s most memorable elements. As they cue Bell into their hobbies and routines, their simple delights and endless ingenuity render them utterly human and charming. This compassionate account, in counterpoint to mainstream America’s reduction of runaways as social deviants, magnifies the injustice of their situation. To quote Rat’s opening monologue about pier-jumping — an adolescent thrill if there ever was one — “the only bad part about flying is having to come back down to the fucking world.” Rat’s brief flight embodies the freedom of being a teenager and getting to recklessly experiment in life before falling prey to adult expectations, a freedom he and his fellow street urchins have been denied by a cultural mandate that expects them to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and set aside teenage life’s idle and impactful joys.
Martin Bell is a filmmaker who has always pointed his camera at social ills and customs in American society. His landmark documentary about Seattle’s houseless youth, which he directed in collaboration with his then-partner Mary Ellen Mark, won the Documentary Special Jury Prize at Sundance in 1985. His follow-up fiction feature debut American Heart starring Jeff Bridges as an ex-convict tracking down his estranged teenage son was nominated for Best First Feature at the 1994 Film Independent Spirit Awards. Over the years, Bell has also kept in contact with Streetwise’s cast and made short documentaries about them at different stages in their lives — Tiny at 20 (1993), Erin (2000), Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell (2016), and Streetwise Revisited: Rat (2021).
Text written by Nicolas Pedrero-Setzer. Special thanks to Martin Bell, Joana Avillez, Brett Sharlow, Aliza Ma and the Criterion Channel.
To see more films by Martin Bell, including in-depth supplements on the director and the films, visit the Criterion Channel.