Pier Kids (2019)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Street Trash (1987)

The eternal trade-off in horror fandom is having to put up with a lot of cruelty & trash while searching for the gems, which means getting burned repeatedly for daring to seek relief in fictional & comedic violence. Shock horrors from the 70s & 80s are an especially tricky enterprise. They were birthed in a time where the genre was at its wildest, most over the top creative summit, but they also often gleefully depict rape & intentionally offend in their politics in a way that sours the party vibe. The infamous “melt movie” Street Trash perfectly encapsulates that trade-off in the span of a single picture. Street Trash‘s opening & closing stretches of goopy, psychedelic body horror deliver everything anyone could reasonably hope for in a VHS era genre picture, but its second act doldrums are an hour-long indulgence in horror’s worst, cruelest impulses. The film is just barely recommendable for the strength of its practical effects gore & impressive camera work alone, but more than half of its runtime is a dead-in-the-water descent into heartless rape humor and plotless vilification of the poor. It’s a microcosm of the horror genre in that way: mind-boggling art buried under a mountain of cruelty & trash.

Like the Mortville setting of John Waters’s Desperate Living, Street Trash is mostly confined to a grime-slathered homeless community, just outside of Proper Society’s periphery. Unlike in Waters’s film, this horror comedy has an open distaste for its characters, who mostly populate a junkyard shanty town constructed out of old cars & stacks of tires. Everyone in the film is a drunken, psychotic asshole coated in an opaque later of grime. The film directly acknowledges their plights under addiction, police harassment, war veteran PTSD, and general mental illness, but still mostly makes them out to be cretinous trash (hence the title). All dialogue is shouted or slurred as the homeless swarm NYC streets, clawing for spare change & desperately offering to wash car windshields for tips. It’s much like the dystopic Out of Control Teens panic of Class of 1999 in that way. There’s a satirical opportunity in visualizing wealth classes’ fears of the poor (like an inverse of Brian Yuzna’s Society), but Street Trash is too light on plot to pursue it. The mechanism of its horror spectacle is a poisonous case of a fortified wine called Viper that a convenience store clerk sells to the homeless for dirt cheap. When consumed, Viper melts its victims from the inside out, reducing them to puddles of multi-color acrylic goop & exploding flesh. It’s a killer conceit and it’s undeniably fun to watch this insular community get torn apart by this villainous poison. There’s ultimately no point behind its existence, however, as it’s merely a crate of expired liquor some bozo found in a storeroom wall. With a plot about corporate boardrooms plotting to poison homeless people en masse with Viper as a way to clear city streets (in the vein of Three the Hard Way or Black Dynamite), Street Trash might have had something to actually do in its second act. As is, the lack of a plot only leaves a vacuum the film intends to fill with rape humor & open gawking at homeless cretins.

The latex special effects work in Street Trash is undeniably impressive. The film is bookended with opening & closing 20min stretches of gorgeously grotesque, for-its-own-sake gore spectacle that makes the film feel like it has potential to be one of the greatest body horrors of all time. The hour between those bookends is brutally unfunny & nihilistically pointless, however. A psychotic Vietnam vet torturing his wino underlings and a murder investigation involving the mafia & a fatal gang rape stretch the movie way past a reasonable runtime for what it accomplishes as well as past a tone that anyone who’s not a teenage boy could possibly find comedic. As little as I enjoy 60% of its runtime, however, my horror nerd appreciation of the remaining forty minutes leave the film at least passably enjoyable. At the very least, it’s impressive that a film this obviously cheap is also so visually impressive. Not only are the special effects of the rainbow-colored, Viper-melted bodies a visual art triumph; the film is just generally well-shot for VHS era schlock, making great use of low to the ground tracking shots to build majesty & menace. Synapse’s recent restorative DVD release looks especially fantastic. With a lot of the cast appearing to be crew & their friends and the only recognizable faces being people like That One Guy From GoodFellas, The Frankenhooker Dude, and The Mom From Polyester, that visual achievement can’t be overpraised, as the film is an obvious labor of love. It’s just a shame that it declined to fully explore the implications of its poisoned homeless community in-between its most impressive stretches of flesh-melting violence. Even when a stray gag in its second act doldrums does pay off (like a Benny Hill-inspired routine involving a severed dick), it feels like that time might have been better spent investigating the originating source of Viper or further exploring the homeless community’s interactions with the equally assholish upper class. Better yet, it could have cut out the second act entirely & just stuck to Viper’s physical effects, as it obviously cannot be trusted to use its idle time well when afforded it.

-Brandon Ledet