There’s a reason we’ve seen so many documentaries about homeless queer youth in America over the decades, especially on the festival circuit: it’s a huge fucking problem. Gay, trans, nonbinary, and otherwise queer children are especially vulnerable to being kicked out onto the street by their families, which often resigns them to high-risk lives of petty theft & sex work to get by in an increasingly hostile world. Many documentaries are (rightfully) drawn to signal-boosting these stories as a means to advocating for the kids locked in this never-ending epidemic, which makes for both an amplified political advocacy in total and a crowded field where it is difficult for any one individual film to distinguish itself in isolation. Pier Kids is one of many, many documentaries on a frequently covered (even if vital) topic. Its merits as an individual work can only be judged by two criteria, then: the specific kids it chooses to document and the way it handles presenting their story.
This particular queer homeless youth advocacy doc opens with seething commentary on the assumed POV in the cultural history of queer identity. A title card asserts that in the fifty years since the Stonewall Riots the narrative of modern gay rights has been dominated by cisgender White Gays, when the real work needs to be focused on protecting & uplifting POC homeless youth, especially black trans women. Other recent documentary work I’ve seen in this same line of advocacy has been centered on action & organization in “solving” this epidemic, like the unofficial Paris is Burning sequel Kiki and the gang violence “rehabilitation” effort Check It!. Pier Kids is seemingly more focused on calling attention to the problem than actively advocating for a specific solution, as it profiles individual homeless youths who frequent the piers of NYC in-between excursions in sex work & shoplifting. This matter-of-fact document of systemically ignored & discarded youth has plenty of intrinsic value without having to push for a more clearly defined solution to the problem, and the film is likely better for not reaching beyond its means for that lofty goal.
The title “Pier Kids” is especially telling in this approach, as it emphasizes that these young, homeless sex workers are disenfranchised children who’re struggling to establish a foundation of normality in a systemically cruel world. Like many docs in this milieu, the film dedicates much of its energy to parsing out the structure & functions of gay “families” – wherein veterans of the scene provide makeshift homes & parental guidance to their “gay children.” Cops, drunken Wall Street bros, and physically violent johns create a cruelly unfair, rigged system where financially desperate youths are solicited for sex, then suffer all the legal, emotional, and physical consequences for prostitution. Director Elegance Bratton can’t help themselves in vocally responding “Oh my god” and “I’m so sorry” to the more egregious horrors suffered by their subjects, but just as much room is left for tenderness & tough love shared in these chosen, D.I.Y. family structures. This is not an act of culture-gazing; it’s a slice of life look at a community with volatile ups & downs.
To its credit, Pier Kids openly acknowledges its small part in a larger documentary tradition. Glimpses at ball culture glamor and detailed explanations of differing vogueing “house” structures directly recall Paris is Burning. A central subject named Krystal Labeija Dixon encourages the audience to look up the Crystal Labeija’s infamous read from the landmark documentary The Queen on YouTube as an explanation of why she chose her name. Pier Kids’s cheap digital equipment leaves it with a cold visual palette that can’t compete with those early documentaries’ wonderfully grimy, color-saturated celluloid patina. Similarly, its soundtrack is often overwhelmed by the roar of traffic, the hum of mobile streetlight generators, and the menace of police sirens. However, its personal, intimate documentation of a new, specific crop of homeless queer kids is just as essential as any past works – if not only as confirmation that the epidemic is still ongoing. These children are still out there taking care of themselves & each other with no end or solution to this cycle in sight. I do hope there will be a day when these documentaries are no longer such a regular routine, but only in the sense that I hope for a future where they’re no longer necessary. We’re not there yet.