Overview: A documentary capturing one year in the lives of three homeless Chicago teens. 2014; Spargel Productions/Kartemquin Films; 89 Minutes.
The Issue: It’s a statement that’s been recycled and rewritten countless times: You can measure a culture by how well it treats its elderly. You can judge a nation by how it takes care of its veterans. The best way to understand a society is in its treatment of its impoverished, its handicapped, its disadvantaged. But the least commonly heard version of this modified platitude is probably the truest: The best way to measure a civilization is in how it takes care of its children. The template is never applied in this direction, because the sentiment should be common sense. That’s why it’s so jarring when The Homestretch begins and ends with two heartbreaking statistics. Every night, 2,000 to 3,000 Chicago youths are left homeless on the streets, and in the current moment there are over 1.6 million young people homeless in America.
Inspiration: Directors/producers Anne de Mare and Kristen Kelly have put together a documentary that illustrates heroic individuals. Now, when I speak about heroism, I’m not just alluding to the saintlike mercy of the charitable adults in The Homestretch. Though, without question, the film documents many, many adult heroes. Pat Scott, a homeless liason. Ms. Robero, a teacher with a cast iron spirit and golden heart who extends her hand and home to a student in need. All of the workers who volunteer their effort to the Temporary Living Programs, from Marcellus Summers to Dr. Ozella Barnes and countless more. For each of their efforts, these adults are deserving of the “hero” label. But the most profoundly inspiring heroism in this movie is found in its focal teen subjects, all of whom are living day-to-day without a place to call home. Roque is a soft-spoken senior with a passion for the stage, born to immigrant parents, and left homeless by a confusing conflict that threatens his father’s deportation. Kasey is a hilarious and driven young woman whose sexual orientation has made it impossible to live under the judgment of her family. Anthony is an articulate and vibrant young man with a child of his own, driven and determined to make the best of any opportunity afforded to him in these circumstances. What’s heroic about these young individuals is their undeterred optimism, their resounding commitment to overcome, and their ability to meet every obstacle with a deep breath and a smile. In the opening scenes, one of Anthony’s friends ponders whether an individual’s chances of success are influenced more by his spirit or his circumstances, and we realize that what should be a general classroom discussion of economic philosophy has far greater implications within the lives of these young people. These kids persist and fight forward with an unfounded courage against whatever comes their way, which happens to be setbacks stronger than anything most viewers could ever imagine.
Heartbreak: This is not an easy film. There are moments that wore so hard on me that I could only persevere by recognizing that these narrative hardships were fought in real life by individuals nearly half my age. Anthony walks through his childhood home, his last reliable shelter, taking witness of the ruined structure. Roque’s drama teacher instructs him to recall his real life experience to sell his delivery on Hamlet‘s famous “to be or not to be” speech, and when the young man weighs his existence against the possibility of non-existence, his face displays a crushing uncertainty toward which situation might be preferable. Later in the film, when Kasey is finally provided a place to call her own, her arrangement of a handful of dishes into empty drawers and her careful placement of blankets to create a makeshift bed are a sad, sobering measure of just how far she’s come.
Inspiration: However, the film’s most prominent strength lies in Mare’s and Kelly’s readiness to point a camera instead of fingers, to capture truth instead of proposing solutions. In this way, The Homestretch is likely to be the most important documentary you’ll see all year. Even in the background of this film, we witness small miracles, things as simple as a flattened hamburger torn apart and shared in a basement during a cold Chicago winter. When a group of homeless teens meet for a meal, the volunteer workers ask that they first give thanks and a young man offers that he is thankful that God is on his side, a proclamation that should provide perspective to anyone watching from home or in a theater, unable to divorce his or herself from the stress of a middle class job. When the reliable sanctuary The Crib loses funding and has to close, it is through teary eyes that all of its inhabitants express hope and positivity, even as their next step is a blind and dangerous one. It’s an amazing thing to witness, this seemingly limitless compassion, sincerity, hope, and kindness. In the hearts of these three teens, there exists a better culture than the one we’ve created (the one that’s almost left these kids behind), and now the impetus to preserve and harvest it is ours.
Overall: Early in the film, the camera captures Dr. Barnes informing these kids (and, by proxy, the viewer) that their circumstances are undeserved. She tells them (and us) that they are not in the position they are in because of what they have done. They are not bad children, she assures them. And it’s true. But even if they were bad children, they would still be children.
The Homestretch begins a one-week run at the Gene Siskel Film Center September 12th. For information, visit www.kartemquin.com.