Director: Michael Leoni
MPAA Rating: NR
Runtime: 104 Minutes
There are an estimated 1.8 million homeless kids in America. An average of 13 die every day. Those are difficult numbers to digest. And should you sit down and give American Street Kid a watch, you’re going to stomach a lot more than that. American Street Kid is an emotional punch to the face on the little-known truth of youth homelessness across the States. Boy, does it leave a mark.
Ryan’s stepfather was a meth addict. Ishmael is the son of a pimp and a prostitute. Nick smoked meth when he was 12 then crack when he was 13, and his father was an alcoholic. Mischa was cycled through foster homes from ages 10 to 18 because of the constant abuse she endured at home. “I would rather have been raped and beaten up everyday then have been in the foster care system,” she says. These are some of the kids (mostly teens and young adults) that ASK follows. To say their stories are heartbreaking is an understatement.
Filmmaker Michael Leoni hits the streets of Los Angeles with a camcorder in hand to film what is supposed to be a 2-minute public service announcement. The kids in the film are primarily discovered hanging out at the Venice Beach Boardwalk, but they come from all over the country.
Leoni becomes so moved by their tragic lives that he makes it his personal responsibility to help get them off the streets. He plays a major role in his own film, pouring every ounce of his energy into mentoring the kids, sometimes feeding and housing them, helping them get into school, get jobs and earn healthy living spaces.
Our director narrates the whole way through the film, keeping us informed on the progress (or lack thereof) on the casts’ lives. It plays out like a narrative switching back and forth among several youths and their unfolding journey. Whether they’re looking to have a family or trying to get a music career started, it’s a serious, long, painful and hard-fought battle, and you can feel the struggle emanating from the screen.
Some try really hard to shift their lives into gear, but they’re constantly beaten back down by their drug addictions and the rough street life. We quickly sympathize with them and root for them like they’re our own flesh and blood, but their goals often feel unachievable. Most of the film is seriously depressing, but Leoni throws in some dashes of uplifting moments and comedy to lighten the disheartening mood.
Leoni teams up with producer Erica Katzin to perform editing alchemy for this film, which was created by a micro crew. When characters are first introduced, their names are “spray painted” onto the screen. This gives the film a grimy, street feel so that the less-than-ideal, tight-budget production value becomes gold. Some of the film’s original music is composed by ASK‘s very own, Ishmael. When Leoni allows the kids’ personalities to shine through like this, we identify with them as fellow human beings, and we care about their struggle.
Bright decisions are made in terms of what content appears on screen. The filmmakers could have easily just shown us kids smoking meth and prostituting themselves, but then we would just be left to judge rather than being provided with a meaningful study. By exposing us to their backstory, their current lifestyle, and their goals, we can formulate an actual understanding to their lives.
One major emphasis is they want to be a part of a family. We always see them sticking together because they share a deep yearning to be part of the loving family that they never had growing up. Obviously hanging out with people who have the same bad habits and addictions as you may not be the best idea, so the film raises an interesting contradiction here.
What ASK does really well that many other documentaries don’t is that it forms clarification to a problem. Homelessness in general is something that citizens have strong opposing feelings about, but after watching this, every viewers’ emotions will lie in sync.
Flaws in production or storytellling are made up for in social importance. You won’t soon forget the stories of these young men and women. There may be more creative or more technically composed documentaries out there, but I have never in my life seen a documentary, or any film for that matter, that made me care about the people on screen as much as American Street Kid.