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Streets
(1990)

Director: Katt Shea  
Cast:
Christina Applegate, David Mendenhall, Eb Lottimer


I know that some of you might disagree, but I think that I live in one of the best cities in the world. There are so many things I like about the city that I live in. There's just enough urban growth that makes available just about anything you care to buy, but not so much growth that you feel overwhelmed. Also, you don't have to travel far if you want a break from the downtown core or the suburbs; there are plenty of parks in my city, and you don't have to travel far out of town to reach the wilderness that lies out of the city limits. There's certainly a lot I like about my city, though at the same time I will freely admit that my city is not without some problems. The often narrow city streets can get congested with traffic sometimes, and we dump our waste water directly into the ocean instead of having it first cleaned up. Another problem my city has is that it has a significant homeless population. I guess one reason we have so many homeless people might be that our winters are usually much milder than the rest of Canada. Another possible reason might be that with my city having a good amount of size, there are more services for homeless people than cities with much smaller populations. Whatever the reasons might be, there are a lot of homeless people on my city's streets. I usually see several of them every time I go out of my downtown apartment and take a walk of a significant length. When I pass them begging on the streets for change, I am often conflicted in my thoughts. Yes, they need money, but I do know that a lot (not all, but a lot) of them are wanting money to buy drugs or alcohol. I usually give money directly to reputable charities that help the homeless, though I admit that occasionally I am moved by a homeless person to give them some spare change, even though I suspect what it will ultimately be used for.

From what I have observed from the homeless people I pass almost daily in the downtown core of my city, homelessness seems to affect every kind of person you can think of. I have seen both male and female homeless people. I have seen homeless people of multiple ethnic races. I have also seen homeless people of various ages. Many of them are elderly, some are around my age, and some homeless people are much younger. Some of these young homeless people I have observed have not reached the age of majority. Quite often I pass these homeless youths in packs consisting of other homeless people their age. Often I see them talking casually or even downright joking with each other. Since they seem to support each other, it's possible that one might think that these homeless youths are having a good time away from their parents and their various rules and regulations. But I know that this homeless life can't be the ideal life for these youths. Several months ago I watched the Oscar nominated documentary Streetwise, which was a look at various homeless youths in the Seattle area. Although many of the youths in that documentary didn't seem to realize they were in a hellish life, the documentary made clear the life of a homeless youth was no picnic. Having to steal food... encountering hostile people on the streets on a regular basis... and living in abandoned buildings, the documentary showed that homeless life was a real hell on earth. I could only imagine how horrible life at home must have been for those youths if they decided that running away and living on the streets was a better kind of lifestyle.

After watching Streetwise, I really wanted to know what happened to the various showcased homeless youths in the subsequent years that passed since the movie as first released. However, my research uncovered that no follow-up on those youths was ever documented either on celluloid Streetsor in print. In fact, there doesn't seem to be a demand for a look at youth homelessness elsewhere in society as well. Not just when it comes to non-fiction looks at the subject, but also in fiction media. I can only think of a small handful of movies that have looked at the subject. Streets, a movie I recently stumbled upon accidentally, is one such movie. I had mixed feelings when I found the movie and decided to look at it. On one hand, it promised to be a rare look at the subject. On the other hand, it was a Roger Corman production, and as you probably know, when Corman tackles just about any subject, he does so in an exploitive way. The focus of Streets is around three different characters in the Venice Beach area of Los Angeles. Dawn (Applegate, Married With Children) is a teenager who was abandoned by her mother a long time ago. Some time after htting the streets, she got addicted to heroin, forcing her to turn tricks in order to support her habit. It's not an ideal lifestyle, the idea of which is reinforced one day when a customer (Lottimer, Quicker Than The Eye) tries to kill her. But Dawn is saved by Sy (Mendenhall, Over The Top), another teenager who has recently run away from home with the dream of becoming a rock star. After Dawn and Sy get away from Dawn's psychotic customer, the two quickly become friends, and Dawn starts showing Sy the ropes of surviving on the streets. Soon the two start falling in love, but it's not golden roads ahead for them, especially since that psychotic customer who tried to kill Dawn earlier - who also happens to be a member of the police force - starts to rack up a list of murders as he hunts for her.

As you can probably see from this basic plot, the makers of Streets could have easily taken this movie into a direction of straight exploitation, sort of what the makers of the teen prostitution movie Angel did just a few years earlier. That's kind of what I was expecting with Roger Corman being the movie's producer. But to my surprise - and that surprise being a pleasant one - director and co-writer Katt Shea (who later did Poison Ivy and The Rage: Carrie 2) made the movie in a way that for the most part isn't that exploitive. In fact, some of the elements of the movie come across as surprisingly high class, the biggest being the performances by the actors. Applegate gives the movie's best performance. From the way that she delivers her dialogue, or even when her character stays silent, her character exudes an extreme weariness. It's clear that her character has seen it all in her often unpleasant lifestyle, and she has become numb as a defensive technique. Applegate's professional performance also helps us accept some unbelievable parts of the script. For instance, her character states at one point that she doesn't do straight sex, only oral sex and hand jobs. This kind of teen prostitute may sound extremely unlikely, but Applegate's conviction with her character's declaration of these facts actually makes it come across as believable. As for David Mendenhall, he manages to stand up to Applegate quite well. His challenging task is to start the movie by making his character naive about the lives of runaways, but subsequently learning the ropes about street life fairly quickly. We get the feeling that his character is not stupid, just sheltered from the hard facts of homelessness, and he does prove himself in the end.

The moments of Streets that pair up Applegate and Mendenhall and have them simply talking to each other are the best moments in the movie. Aided by their radically different characters, the two actors generate some genuine and compelling chemistry. There were times when I almost believed that there was a hidden camera photographing real people talking about real things in their lives. Still, while these are intriguing characters, their construction is not perfect. We learn very little about Mendenhall's character, for one thing. It's never explained why his character ran away from home in the first place, and what furthers the mystery is the eventual revelation that he ran away from a pretty good and stable home environment. Another flaw is when the two characters fall in love. While I guess it's possible even someone as hardened as Applegate's character could eventually let her defenses down when it comes to romance, I don't believe it could happen in a matter of hours as it happens here. (Somewhat making up for this unbelievable love story is how the characters' growing attachment is dealt with at the end of the movie, an ending that feels very realistic and believable.) However, the contrived romantic portion of the movie does come off as very watchable compared to the killer policeman subplot that is shoehorned into the movie. These portions of the story seem to come from a completely different movie, with their graphic violence and cruelty jarring badly with the sensitive and tender feeling come from the rest of the movie. I don't know if director Shea was forced to add this sensationalistic material to the movie by Roger Corman or not, but someone along the line should have realized that the story of these two street kids meeting and subsequently bonding was by itself interesting and compelling. Had the killer policeman been eliminated and substituted with a more in-depth look at these two kids, we might have ended up with a really special straight drama.

Still, I do have to admit that those scenes with the killer policeman - at least when observed by themselves and not with the rest of the movie - are executed with some skill. Eb Lottimer is creepy and believable as the serial killer, and the various kills and acts of violence his character enacts during his search for the runaways are directed in a manner that don't make the viewer enjoy these scenes - they come across as sick acts from a real disturbed mind. There's real atmosphere in these sequences, but there is also an effective feel in much of the rest of the movie.  Filmed on select locations on Venice Beach and other parts of Los Angeles, the movie doesn't look like the warm and friendly southern California usually seen in movies. The surroundings always look dirty and dilapidated, and various criminals from petty thieves to serial killers seem to be lurking in every shadow. An appropriate environment, accurately showing that the environment that teenage runaways is a kind of hell on earth. However, some of this effectiveness is ruined by some contrived photography. There are a number of scenes, outdoor as well as indoor, that are photographed in a way where one color is dominant. Maybe it was intended to be arty, but this is wrong for a movie concerning teenage runaways. The movie should have been photographed in a straightforward manner, with nothing to distract us from the drab and depressing world these characters are stuck in. But despite this problem and the others I mentioned earlier, Streets does in the end manage to be a fairly compelling drama unlike just about any other Roger Corman movies of this era. Or from any other era, for that matter.

(Posted April 30, 2015)

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See also: Bonnie's Kids, High School Hellcats, The Spikes Gang

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