The heroes of the documentary "Streetwise" are Seattle runaways -- punks, panhandlers, dopers, bullies, hookers, living on the fringe. The story it has to tell is powerful -- statistics come to life -- but "Streetwise" is so muddled, the effect it should have is lost.
"Streetwise" follows its subjects through days of cadged quarters, blood donated for pay, "dates" arranged with prosperous pedophiles and hit-and-run encounters with the city's social service agencies. When the movie gets inside the mechanics of surviving on the streets, it can be fascinating -- the Virgil of this descent into hell is Rat, a gangly, malnourished kid who shows us how to find food in dumpsters (depend on your "regs," or regular dumpsters, so you know how old the scraps are), or trick the local Pizza Hut (when the unretrieved order is tossed in the garbage, Rat picks it up).
There's a colorful black teen-ager (in an unlikely preppy sweater) who brags, "I don't do nothing for free, I'm a pimp," then mugs sheepishly while his grandmother scolds him. And Tiny, a charming 14-year-old prostitute, who says, "I think it's very strange that men like little girls because they're perverts, that's what they is." But only half of the large cast is interesting, and the ones who aren't clutter the narrative. "Streetwise" is so busy getting all of their stories in that none is told well.
"Streetwise" pioneers new film and sound technologies that allowed cinematographer Martin Bell and journalists Cheryl McCall and Mary Ellen Mark (who have adapted the movie from an article they did for Life) to shoot scenes unobtrusively, and at night; but so armed, they never solve the central problem of documentary filmmaking -- coming to terms with the camera, and the subjects' awareness of it. For most of "Streetwise," the kids are obviously performing for an audience, but the movie never acknowledges that. It leaves you thinking there's another story that the movie doesn't know.
"Streetwise" takes place in Seattle, but it never evokes the geometry of the neighborhood, or where it exists relative to the rest of the city. Without a solid sense of place, the stories seem weightless, unmoored. And while something's obviously wrong here, "Streetwise" never provides a point of view; the human loss remains as random and distant as the newspaper headlines the movie's supposed to get behind.
Streetwise, at the Inner Circle, is unrated, and contains violence, sexual themes, and profanity.