Exclusive IAR Edit Bay Visit: 'Street'

Tuesday, 07 June 2011 13:07 Written by  Jordan DeSaulnier
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Exclusive IAR Edit Bay Visit: 'Street'

Here in the dog days of summer, one needs no reminder of film's unique ability to provide captivating escapism.  What is less evident during these months of spectacle, however, is the potential of movies to viscerally depict abhorrent real-world issues with an urgency and emotional whallop not always possible in other media.  During an exclusive edit bay visit, IAR was shown Street, an independently-financed film which depicts the all-too-common plight of teenage homelessness and drug addiction in America.  Writer-director York Shackleton's ambition to realistically depict the abhorrent circumstances endured by one teenage runaway is likely to elicit both admiration and controversy.

Shackleton, a renowned skateboarder and retired professional snowboarder credited with inventing the rodeo flip, has a background in documentary filmmaking, and the look and feel of Street reflects that background.  Shot entirely on location, the film opens with a ground-level montage of Portland, Oregon, with the textural detail of the city and its actual inhabitants apparent immediately.  Unlike many modern indies, the movie was shot on film as opposed to digital video, and it lends a weight to the imagery that is fitting for the heavy material.  Though made for under a million dollars, the use of film also lends a cinematic quality without compromising on documentary-style realism.

In that opening montage, we are introduced to Lexi, played by Laura Ramsey (The Ruins, Middle Men), wrapped in a red hoodie, scavenging for a meal, and looking thoroughly aimless.  Suddenly the film doubles back, showing Lexi with a roof over her head and problems not necessarily any greater than the average angst-ridden teenager.  An unexpected argument with her mother (Theresa Russell in a searing, go-for-broke performance that reverberates through the entire film) escalates quickly then spirals out of control, and in series of short steps, Lexi has joined the legion of homeless youth.  Her odyssey sees her negotiating between her affection for Eric, a charismatic but dangerous heroin addict played by Toby Hemingway, and the good intentions of an altruistic suburban mother portrayed with surprising tenderness by Vivica A. Fox.

The style, tone, and content of the film all deny the actors even the faintest hint of glamor, and they each deliver in their gritty roles. British-born Hemingway, for example, is probably best known as one of several high-cheekboned warlocks in The Covenant, yet here he is gaunt, his eyes eyes peering out from sunken sockets beneath a fierce mohawk.  Hemingway imbues the character with a certain rebellious charm, yet the darkness consuming him is often scarily in evidence. 

Ramsey, meanwhile, carries the film with a deceptive quiet, as the screenplay demands that the smallest gestures and expressions communicate her internal turmoil, rather than relying on easy, explanatory dialogue.  Ramsey's soulful work, as well as heavily internal nature of her character and the indifference of everyone around her, allows Lexi to be a vessel for empathy despite any inadvisable choices that the character might make.

Shackleton's direction is reminiscent of Gus Van Sant or even Larry Clark's work on Kids, though without Clarke's regrettable lasciviousness.  Throughout, the actors playing primary characters are interacting with actual homeless denizens of Portland, as well as real world drug dealers.  The director demonstrates a keen eye for just the right faces to populate the frame, providing a real sense of place. 

In keeping with the commitment to realism, Lexi's story is based upon the actual journal entries of a young runaway.  Though elements of her experience are slightly fictionalized, Lexi's eventual dreadlocks give a clue to the attention to detail at work.  The dreadlocked wig worn by Laura Ramsey actually consisted of her real-life counterpart's hair.

Again and again, drug use is portrayed as a pervasive fact of existence amongst many of the characters, and it looms over everything that takes place in the story.  The unflinching look at drug abuse contained in Street could very well prove controversial.  Specifically, an early scene depicts actual intravenous drug use, following the procedure step-by-step as a young man cooks up and gets his fix.  The depiction of the act by an addict is not sensationalized or stylized; it is instead quietly horrific, reminiscent of the documentary Black Tar Heroin in that its does not preach, nor condone, but allows an audience to experience the whole thing at a nauseating proximity.

Street is an uncompromising look at a pervasive societal problem, one that many Americans would prefer to simply not contemplate.  The scale and seeming insolubility of the issue is such that any film dealing with it is the opposite of escapist fare.  It does not help that films about young homeless or drug addicted characters are frequently insufferably preachy or melodramatic.  The attention to detail on display from producer-writer-director York Shackleton and the obvious commitment from his cast and crew allows Street to nimbly avoid either fate.  The result is a sobering, sympathetic story that transcends its limitations and provides an emotional connection to an issue too often represented only by statistics.

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