American Street Kid was born out of writer-director Michael Leoni’s brush with a homeless teenager and the play he wrote about it. After writing said play, Leoni began documenting other minors without homes, hoping to shine a light on their plight. But, after gaining their trust, Leoni finds that he cannot just be a passive observer. To that end, he begins calling all the shelters, rehab clinics, and transitional programs to give these kids a new lease on life.
That is easier said than done, especially when these people have trouble trusting anyone and have been doing various drugs for several years—some of them before they were even teens. While all the teens documented here have heartbreaking and frustrating tales, detailing all of them would far exceed the word count here, so here’s a small sampling of the stories: Crystal is pregnant and determined to keep the child, giving that baby something she never had – pure, unconditional love. But, she’s living on the streets without a high school diploma or a job. Leoni tries to convince her to give the baby up for adoption to a family she chooses. Does she listen to this rather sensible advice?
Nick is an intelligent lad who just ups and vanishes after getting accepted into a school to become a massage therapist. He’s disappearance sends Leoni into a bit of a tailspin. Nessa and Ryan are expecting a child, but then she gets mugged one night, and they aren’t sure if the baby survived the attacks. Ishmael, Ish for short, has a singing voice from heaven but because he’s on the streets, and does not have an ID, finds it all but impossible to hold down a steady gig, or even just a job generally speaking. Leoni decides to advocate for Ish and help him get his ID so that he can start his journey off the streets.
“…documenting…minors without homes, hoping to shine a light on their plight.”
Though there is occasionally someone else filming for Leoni, and the writer-director often calls his producing partner, American Street Kid is essentially one man – Michael Leoni – and his camera. As such, aside from some sped-up and slow-motion footage to highlight how homeless teens spend their days, style is not the movie’s focus. Nor should it be, as anything too flashy would distract from the seriousness of the situation. Leoni does eschew the typical talking head formula, though that is present, by honing in on his desperate attempts to navigate the bureaucracy to find them help.
As he earns their trust and becomes more intent on not just observing but also helping them, a sense of urgency washes over the entire documentary. As Leoni reaches the end of his rope, as the shelters are filled and not all the kids want help, the movie turns from engrossing to heart-wrenching. How invested the audiences become in Leoni and these teens’ lives sneak up on them, in the best possible way.
American Street Kid is a powerful call to action that will move everyone who watches to help. Leoni’s dedication and love for these people shine through beautifully, as he humanizes, while most others would look away. While it runs a tad long, as there are many players involved, the documentary is an urgent and much-needed watch.
"…a powerful call to action that will move everyone who watches to help."