“American Street Kid” is a bracing, revealing and almost co-dependent film about homeless teens living on the streets in what has to be the Homeless Teen Capital of North America — Los Angeles.
Filmmaker Michael Leoni got to know his subjects, swapped cell numbers and became a part of their lives — thus the “co-dependent” label. The kids grew to trust him, depend on him (“I tried to feed every kid we interviewed.”). He broke the cardinal rule about “Not getting too close” to his subjects. He’d spend evenings phone calling his way through bureaucracy to try and get this or that one in a shelter, a “transitional living” home or even hotel rooms or his own house, just to get them off the street.
Ordinarily, I grimace a little at filmmakers who make themselves too much a part of a story they’re trying to objectively tell. It’s self-serving, and with a subject this emotional, self-righteous.
But Leoni, at the time a Los Angeles stage director, experiences first-hand the difficulties that come AFTER a teenage boy or girl has given you their version of how they ended up on the street, when they last ate and how much money they have in their pockets.
Easy solutions don’t exist, and the hard ones are depressingly inefficient, inadequate or even simply inappropriate. Only somebody who has crossed the lines that Leoni does, frantically trying to track down a boy who “is using meth again,” a pregnant teen experiencing pains that may not be simple hunger pangs, responding to late night calls from kids running from someone assaulting them, could make this story this personal.
Leoni did a play about street kids and noticed two such kids in his audience, more than once. Seana and Raven showed up time and again and identified with the actors playing young people like them in “The Playground.” Leoni got to know them, even videotaped interviews with Seana.
“Every night she left the theater, I knew her life was in danger,” Leoni says in the film. “And I didn’t know how to help her.”
Shortly after that, they both died. Raven, a teen prostitute, was murdered.
So Leoni set out to shoot a public service announcement about the plight of children just like them. But it took time to find homeless teens who would talk to him. And by the time he did, as he ingratiated himself with them, a two minute PSA morphed into his feature length documentary, “American Street Kid.
He introduces us to two 15 year-olds, Kiki and Akira, to Nick from Mississippi and the kid who likes weed so much he took the street name “Greenz.”
Crystal was named after meth by her meth-head dad and who was, at the time of filming, pregnant herself.
There’s Ryan from Arizona and singer/songwriter Ish, “the rock star of the street” from Kansas City.
They have stories of “bad parenting” or being “the son of a pimp and a prostitute” or of being “raped when I was nine.”
They gravitated to LA, the Dream Factory, for who knows what reasons. But here they are, and Leoni hits them with questions that are simple and to the point.
“What put you on the street? ” “How much money do you have in your pocket right now?” “If you could have anything in the world right now, what would it be?”
“A home and a family,” Ryan answers.
Leoni doesn’t just question them on video. He gets involved. He tries to make those dreams come true.
We see him struggling, over long periods of time in most cases, to get through to kids who are often stoned when he tracks them down. They’re articulate but young, without life skills or impulse control or the ability to reason their way past delusions. School, a shelter, “a program” seems too much for them to handle.
Leoni tries to show Crystal how her “I’m gonna give (her child) what I never got as a child” cannot happen without giving her baby up for adoption, lectures prospective dad Ryan that “You can’t take of a kid when you can’t take of yourself.”
Leoni gets reality checks from veterans of the child homelessness problem, chief among them outreach worker Stacia Fiore, who cautions him and as she puts to rest the notion that “kids choose to live like this.”
“You can’t make that decision at 9,” she says. You can’t know how awful what they’re on the run from can be, or the nature of the addictions they’ve developed that sent their lives into a tailspin.
And as we see and hear Leoni get deeper into these lives, filmed as he does it, we start to get it. Who wouldn’t be haunted, wouldn’t be tempted to intervene — directly — to take a child sleeping under a shrub into someplace safer, even your own home?
There is genuine drama to “American Street Kid” and little melodrama. The “kid robbed me blind after I brought him home” scenario never plays out. Maybe he was just lucky in who he picked as his subjects (a couple of boys he hires to run effects on a stage show), but these kids are more a danger to themselves than others, and none appear so far gone that they’d prey on anyone within reach.
Panhandle? Sure. But none are violent.
Yeah, he’s in his film too much for its own good and yes, maybe his ideas for solutions — informed as they seem — feel naive. The kids who flee halfway houses and the like miss “their family” on the street, so they say. Not drugs?
But perhaps getting this close was the only way to see the good in every child, to make portraits this intimate, to personalize a problem this widespread — 1.8 million kids are homeless in the US, and 13 of them die on the streets every day.
And maybe taking his best shot at “saving” all these kids is the best way to illustrate how difficult solutions are. Because his success rate, even with the best “the system” can offer as help, is more depressing than you’d hope for such an upbeat guy and film.
MPAA Rating: unrated, drug use, frank discussions of sexuality and crimes, profanity
Cast: Jesus Fonseca, Wolf Anderson, Kassandra Alvarado, Jesse Arkhipova, Lindsay Clayton, Lorenzo Burton, Stacia Fiore
Credits: Written and directed by Michael Leoni. An 11.11 Experience release.
Running time: 1:44