When it comes to documentary film (as with so much else), sensational and already celebrated subjects tend to dominate the mediasphere, the blogosphere and the watercoolersphere (and eventually the Emmysphere); it helps too (as with so much else) to be on HBO.
Meanwhile, a steady stream of less immediately newsworthy nonfiction films arrives by way of public television to add to our sum of shared experience. And if teenage homelessness may not be as hot or bankable a topic as Robert Durst’s muttering or David Miscavage’s paranoid management style, it’s a bigger, a deeper and more lasting one.
Airing Monday night as part of PBS’ invaluable and wide-ranging “Independent Lens,” Anne de Mare and Kirsten Kelly’s “The Homestretch” focuses on three Chicago kids living apart from their families -- not actually on the street when we meet them, though they have been -- and attempting to finish high school.
Apart from their hopeful determination, the trio have little in common. Kasey left her mother’s house because, “I’m a lesbian [and] she put me down so bad that I was getting depressed, my hair was falling out.” (Later, she’ll get a place of her own, marveling in delight, “This is interesting to me. I don’t even know what to do with myself right now.”) Anthony, on his own since age 14, is working two jobs, studying for the GED and hoping to get custody of a son in foster care.
Undocumented Roque is living in the basement of a dedicated teacher who is helping him toward college. Studying Hamlet in a Chicago high school Shakespeare program (co-founded by ‘The Homestretch’ co-director Kelly), he sees a parallel to his own live: “My dad had this huge problem with immigration, and he had to leave; my mom remarried pretty quick, and so I felt pretty betrayed by them.”
The film does not mean to be any kind of definitive statement on teenage homelessness or even teenage homelessness in Chicago, seen in the rain, snow and sun; there are a few facts and figures put up on the screen but no scholarly analysis, no prescriptions for relief other than the example of the concerned and committed adults we meet along the way, working with kids in and outside the system -- kids, says one shelter director, who are “constantly criminalized for just survival behaviors.”
It’s a portrait of a situation, rather, to use a word that recurs almost as a motif through the film. Chicago public schools register their homeless population as “students in temporary living situations.” “I could be in a worse-off situation,” says Kasey, as she moves in to Belfort House, a transitional home run by the Teen Living Program, where Anthony also lives. “You’re not some bad person because you ended up in this situation,” says the program’s Dr. Ozella Barnes. “It’s a situation, it’s not who you are.”
As a presentation of American Graduate: Let’s Make It Happen -- a “long-term public media commitment,” supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, that aims to keep kids in school -- it is inspirational by design, sad and happy by turns, but happy in the end.
“Each name represents a story,” says one high school liaison to the homeless, regarding her list of students, “and it represents a person -- who is going to be awesome someday.”
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd