There are certain documentaries that thrive on a real-world version of movie-star magnetism, and in volunteer social worker Brenda Myers-Powell, “Dreamcatcher” has found itself something of a supernova. A former prostitute doling out tough love, escape plans and copious condoms to the unsupported sex workers of Chicago, Myers-Powell has a fierce wit and forthright intelligence that brightens even the darkest moments of Kim Longinotto’s intensely moving doc — which is not to say the film soft-sells its bruised, angry observations on institutionalized discrimination and cyclical abuse. Conventionally constructed but remarkable for the honest, intimate rapport it achieves with highly vulnerable human subjects, “Dreamcatcher” should play well on multiple platforms: Shortly before its Sundance premiere, the pic locked down a U.S. deal with Showtime Networks.
Over nearly 40 years, the British-based Longinotto has carved herself a niche — one in which she still has regrettably few peers — as an impassioned documenter of female disenfranchisement in a wide range of social and national contexts, but with its North American focus and hard-won spiritual uplift, “Dreamcatcher” should wind up her most broadly exposed work to date. Auds who responded to Lee Daniels’s Oscar-winning self-realization drama “Precious,” for example, should be encouraged to investigate Longinotto’s latest; the films may be situated on opposite sides of the narrative-documentary divide, but they share a comparable emotional tenor and feminist purview.
Longinotto’s most successful work has previously centered on the plight of women in developing nations — coastal South Africa in “Rough Aunties” and the Iranian judicial system in “Divorce Iranian Style,” among others — so the focus on First World social decay marks “Dreamcatcher” as a departure of sorts for her. Longinotto’s gaze is no less keen in this environment: With the director serving, as usual, as her own d.p., her camera picks up a brisk, nervous energy on the scarred streets of Chicago’s West Side that has rarely been so vividly depicted in other screen representations of the Windy City. Glistening aerial shots of the city’s CBD at the outset, meanwhile, serve to remind viewers just how far disadvantaged demographics have fallen from the city’s center, both geographically and in terms of administrative attention.
With the authorities making little progressive effort to aid the city’s prostitute population beyond placing a number of them behind bars, Myers-Powell — a survivor of drug addiction, grisly physical abuse and a 25-year streetwalking career — has taken it upon herself to establish the nonprofit Dreamcatcher Foundation with fellow ex-addict Stephanie Daniels-Wilson. Together, they offer both rehabilitative and preventative counseling to women and girls who are either on the streets, in prison or being driven in that direction by desperate circumstances. While caring for her adopted son and maintaining a day job that is never specified, our feisty, fabulously bewigged heroine (hardly too glib a word in this context) spends her evenings cruising the streets to seek and aid women in need; Longinotto joins her on these chilly night patrols, unobtrusively recording Myers-Powell’s warm, patient powers of persuasion and the brutal hard-luck testimonies of those willing to share them.
With Myers-Powell as our charismatic conduit to this under-heard band of society, then, the film gradually builds a rich patchwork of individual stories from the fringe, unrestricted by age, race or even gender. Interview subjects range from Temeka, a homeless 15-year-old attempting to go straight after three years on the beat, to Marie, an older prostitute finally persuaded to accept Dreamcatcher’s support after falling pregnant a second time, to Myers-Powell’s own sister-in-law Melody, a fractiously married addict who describes herself as “unready” for the help so readily at hand. Myers-Powell’s nonjudgmental charity extends even to her reformed pimp Homer, a former oppressor who now contributes to (and, in turn, benefits from) the Foundation’s educational workshops.
As these contrasting individuals unpack their backstories, however, a common history of childhood sexual molestation emerges. Often delivered with the stoic calm that comes with a lifetime of unopposed violation, their wrenchingly frank accounts make “Dreamcatcher” suitably hard viewing, and far from a fuzzily inspirational self-help exercise. Yet Myers-Powell’s empathic, charismatic presence — whether listening to her charges with solemn intent, or jovially leading a classroom singalong of Mary J. Blige’s empowerment anthem “Just Fine” — proves as consistent a comfort to the audience as it is to those under her wing.
Rightly confident in the potency of her raw material, Longinotto feels little compulsion to trick her film out with fussy or manipulative formal devices. Content is king here, which isn’t to dismiss the penetrating clarity of the helmer’s shooting style or the deft contribution of editor Ollie Huddleston, who knows exactly how long to linger on an interviewee’s face and surroundings — absorbing the finer nuances of their story even after they’ve said their piece.