“Streetwise,” the classic and haunting 1984 documentary about homeless street kids in Seattle, is a movie that’s now 35 years old. But for anyone who has seen it, the children it’s about — drifters, hustlers, squatters, thieves, prostitutes — remain frozen in time. And none of them was ever more memorable than Tiny, the 14-year-old baby-doll hooker with the punk-peacock shag cut and the mouth that turned down at the corners with a look of jaded desolation you’d expect to see on the face of someone 30 years older.
In the most famous photograph associated with “Streetwise,” an image shot by Mary Ellen Mark, Tiny stares out at the camera with a look of dead-eyed knowingness, her scrawny body clothed in a sleeveless black dress, black gloves, and a hat with a veil that comes halfway down her face. What’s indelible about that image is that Tiny, with her children-of-the-damned stare and French courtesan’s clothing, looks like she could be selling herself on a street corner, but she also looks dressed for a funeral — maybe her own. It was always a little scary to think about where she might end up.
“Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell,” a companion-piece documentary that was shot six years ago and is being given a theatrical release this Friday, clears up the mystery. The first thing to say about the answer it provides is that Tiny (née Erin), who was 44 when the new movie was shot, is alive and sort of well. “Well” being a relative concept. She now has a house, in the marshy Kirkland suburb of Seattle, and she has 10 children — the first five with different fathers (none of whom are around), the last five with the man who became her husband.
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In “Streetwise,” Tiny told a physician that she wouldn’t have an abortion if she got pregnant, and she spoke of her dream of normalcy: having lots of kids, and also lots of jewels. The jewel part didn’t come true, but you could tell even then that this naïve child, as damaged as she was, had the skewed first stirrings of a maternal instinct, and in “Tiny” she’s the messed-up version of an earth mother. The downward-tilting frown is still there, but it’s set in a face that has grown puffy with life and exhaustion; she’s now a heavyset woman who lounges around where she once darted. Erin, now that she’s no longer tiny (or Tiny), wears her damage like a heavy cloak, at times nearly with pride, but you don’t have to look hard to see that she’s got a lot of love inside.
We hear tales of the drugs she’s done (heroin, cocaine, pharmaceuticals), and of her two suicide attempts, and though we don’t actually witness any present-day drug use, one of her daughters berates her for failing to get off meth. So this is no model mom; by many standards, she’s an indefensible parent. Yet I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say that a lot of us who saw “Streetwise” suspected that Tiny would end up in a ditch somewhere. The place she found is deeply flawed, perpetuating cycles of abuse that she herself suffered, but Erin Blackwell comes through as a life giver. It’s easy to judge her, a lot less easy to take the measure of her spirit and existence.
The movie itself isn’t bad, though I wish it were better. The director, once again, is Martin Bell, and his collaborator, as before, is his wife, Mary Ellen Mark, the fabled photographer whose 1983 Life magazine photo feature, “Streets of the Lost,” led directly to the creation of “Streetwise.” Mark died in 2015, but it’s clear from the film’s opening scene, in which we see her talking to Erin in her kitchen, that she invested a great deal of time in winning the trust of her subject. They were friends, of sorts, and that’s a valid way to make a documentary.
“Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell” presents Erin’s life with the no-holds-barred, at times squeamish intimacy of a voyeuristic reality show. Yet the film doesn’t have a lot of shape. Bell cuts among a handful of time periods: the present day, home video-cam footage taken in 2004, a few clips before and after that, and flashbacks to “Streetwise” — or, in fact, outtakes from that movie that bring its demimonde of the lower depths right back to us. The original film, which is being re-released in a restored version, was shot in a remarkable way, with telephoto lenses and remote mics that allowed us to eavesdrop on these feral kids, and to view them against a weirdly beautiful trashed urban magic-hour backdrop that looked like something out of a ’70s movie. The children, beneath their tough exteriors, were guttersnipe innocents of touching hunger and soul who looked like they’d stepped out of some cross between Dickens and Scorsese.
Much of the narrative flow of “Tiny” comes down to figuring out who her kids are — the precise circumstances of each of their upbringings (at times, you may feel you need a PowerPoint graph to keep track of the fathers), who lived with Erin and who got taken away by the state, and how they all turned out. Erin started having kids when she was 16, and Daylon, her oldest, smokes heroin each morning (“I really just smoke to get normal,” he says). Raychon, who looks like Prince on the cover of his pre-“Dirty Mind” albums, has a light and sunny personality, but he’s a self-destructive deadbeat who appears headed for prison. He despises his stepfather, William Charles, who was Erin’s husband of 16 years, for trying to make him straighten up and fly right. But William comes off as the man who saved Erin. They met on a chat line, and he was touched by her woundedness; he stayed with her, and devoted himself to bringing her something like a middle-class life. William, who is African-American, has a voice that conjures the authority of Denzel Washington, and the five kids he had with Erin are beautiful children who look like some, at least, may be on their way to breaking the cycle of damage.
The film keeps jumping back to the world of “Streetwise,” and to the 14-year-old Tiny’s relationship to her own (toxic) mother, and so it may seem unnecessary for viewers to have seen the earlier film. Yet the dialogue between the two movies is the closest thing “Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell” has to a narrative pulse. Apart from the descent of Raychon, the film has little in the way of documentary storytelling. It’s a rambling slice of dysfunction that’s predicated almost entirely on our built-in fascination with Tiny, and for anyone who comes in wielding that curiosity, it sustains you, more or less, through the movie. Yet “Streetwise” was an exquisitely fashioned piece of ragtag verité poetry. If you responded to that film, you’ll be grateful to see “Tiny,” and you’ll take heart in the fact that Erin Blackwell found some kind of life. But you’ll also know why the years since “Streetwise” have felt, at least to her, like a redemption that’s also a fall from grace.