While documentary elements in a narrative film tend to enhance or legitimize its fictional content, it doesn’t quite work that way the other way around. I know the latter isn’t true for all viewers—some prefer their documentaries to play out like dramatic works—but that’s usually the case with me. I’m sure the new Chinese documentary movement and, to a slightly lesser degree, the dispassionate, objective gaze of Frederick Wiseman has influenced the way I look at documentaries, while the Dogme movement and the kind of cinema that has followed in its wake seem to have altered how most of us watch and judge fiction films.
Made eight years apart, Martin Bell’s Streetwise (1984) and American Heart are ideal examples of the above, a topic that needs further exploration. American Heart wouldn’t have been possible without the Academy Award-nominated Streetwise, a gritty yet lyrical montage-based documentary about a group of street kids in Seattle. The latter expands and fictionalizes the relationship shared by a young boy and his incarcerated father in the former. It also finds a way to work in a number of other characters and elements seen in the documentary.
A tale of tough love and survival in the most adverse of times, the film stars an excellent Jeff Bridges as Jack Kelson, a selfish, newly-released ex-con who wants to put his life back together and earn enough to move to his dream destination of Alaska. His task is made more difficult by the unexpected arrival of his teenaged son, Nick (Edward Furlong), whom he once abandoned. To Jack’s surprise, Nick wants them to be together regardless of the circumstances, and he certainly tests his resolve by settling down in a flophouse in Seattle and paying scant attention to him and his well-being.
Depicted without overt sentimentality or judgment, this tenuous, tentative relationship gains from the documentary backdrop of Seattle’s unsavory places (and people), clearly something Bell and one of his co-writers, Mary Ellen Mark, also his wife whose photo essay inspired Streetwise, had great knowledge of. As he also earlier showed in the documentary, Bell has a poetic eye for detail and an awareness and empathy for the less fortunate. The only theatrical feature he’s made to date, this honest and quietly affecting effort is one of the more undervalued American films of the nineties.