SLAMDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2023 REVIEW! Sweetheart Deal follows four sex workers in the unforgiving world of Aurora Avenue, Seattle. Kristine, Krista, Sara, and Tammy share a connection through their addictions and relationship with an unlikely benefactor, “Elliott,” the self-proclaimed “Mayor of Aurora Avenue.” The documentary, directed by Elisa Levine and Gabriel Miller, offers a brutal and authentic look at life on the street without ever feeling exploitative. Instead, the movie gives these women the outlet to tell their stories and record their path to a future.
Writer Karen KH Sim makes the film painful, visceral, and honest from the start. But the filmmakers eloquently capture the people behind the addiction and allow these women to craft their own narrative of the future. Levine and Miller have nearly unhindered access to their lives as Kristine, Krista, Sara, and Tammy try to get clean, deal with dope sickness, relapse, and find themselves back at the mercy of Aurora Avenue. Elliot brands himself as a “good Samaritan” of Seattle, allowing sex workers a place to stay for the night, food when starving, and even a makeshift rehab when they are detoxing. He comforts them at their lows and enables their highs. But betrayal and predators lurk in every corner of Aurora, and sometimes they are closer than friends.
“…follows four sex workers in the unforgiving world of Aurora Avenue…”
Levine and Miller never try to mold or push a narrative in Sweetheart Deal. The motion picture is never preachy or judgmental of the women or their addiction. Instead, it focuses completely on these four women to tell their own stories at the lowest point of their lives. Because of the focus on a human-centered and natural narrative, the film makes each of their arcs so much more powerful. Moments in the movie discuss the opioid epidemic and a search for justice personified. But Kristine, Krista, Sara, and Tammy are always given the final say, allowing them to explain how their life on the street began and many of their escapes (or attempts) from addiction and assault. It’s a story of survivors told in a way that will resonate beyond the streets of Seattle.
There are scenes in Sweetheart Deal that could use more introduction or connective threads to the finale. However, minor shortcomings do nothing to diminish Levine and Miller’s superb ability to depict these women as who they are and who they will become. By the end, you feel like you’ve known these women your whole life. It makes each relapse much harder and every triumph deeply personal. Krista’s return to her birth name from her street name is moving and makes her even more unbreakable in her final scenes. Kristine, Krista, Sara, Tammy, and by extension the film, never try to be inspirational. Yet it’s a vehicle to document these women’s path to justice, getting clean, and stopping the cycle of addiction and abuse for the next group of women who show up on Aurora Avenue.
Saying that Sweetheart Deal is emotionally taxing is an understatement, but watching it is beyond fulfilling. The women depicted, and the entire team behind this production have created an astounding feat of documentary filmmaking. It’s authentic, brutal, empathetic, and above all, freeing. As you watch these women become free, you will be crushed by relapses and overjoyed when they overcome them. The movie features horrific twists and a harsh look at life on the street, but it also gives hope and allows its subjects the outlet to convey that message by simply being themselves. The documentary creates a complete story, never favoring the shame-heavy or the cliche inspirational versions of the steered-straight narrative; instead, Levine and Miller give us reality.
Sweetheart Deal screened at the 2023 Slamdance Film Festival.
"…an astounding feat of documentary filmmaking."