By definition, documentaries are meant to educate, shed light, and “document reality” to inspire and move audiences on any given subject they may know nothing about. American Street Kid, by writer/director Michael Leoni, met these criteria – and then some. He pushed the genre further by injecting himself into the story; weary at first, I thought his inclusion would taint the outcome of the film – turns out I was wrong. Leoni begins the film by asking random people – young and old – their perception of homeless youth. Typical responses: lazy, unmotivated, and labeled as undesirable. Disheartening to hear as the absence of empathy reflects society’s lack of interest and understanding of how these youths become entrenched in these unfortunate circumstances.
Director Michael Leoni gives us a glimpse into the lives of these troubled young people by hanging out in the Los Angeles neighborhoods they frequent. Unsettled by and distrusting of Leoni, it took time for the filmmaker to gain the kids’ trust. Once he did, the audience meets incredibly charismatic and endearing characters like Ish, a talented African-American musician who struggles with childhood abandonment and abuse by a pimp father and prostitute mother, Greenz and Nick, likeable guy-next door types with winning personalities, yet drugged-addicted with abusive parents that led them to run away and seek a better life in the streets of Los Angeles. Bublez and Kiki, two of the younger kids, the filmmaker encounters, with so much promise, likely destined for tragedy. Although post-film release, Marquesha “Kiki” Babers has launched a successful career as a poet, touring nationwide and speaking about her experiences in conferences.
For many of these kids, their fates are sealed in death or imprisonment. It’s inevitable. Failed bureaucratic agencies doing the minimum to assist these kids and overworked staff unable to meet the influx of homeless teens in overcrowded facilities, as Leoni experiences when reaching out to them. But, the filmmaker doesn’t solely rely on the mishaps and the negative circumstances these young people endure to tell the story, he incorporates narrative elements to build storylines with these real-life characters – to not just keep you engaged and sympathize with their abysmal situations, but root for them as you’d be inclined for protagonists in any narrative drama or comedy. It’s a refreshing spin. And it works.
What started as an assignment to produce a 2-minute PSA on America’s homeless youth turned into an 8-year journey for director, Michael Leoni. Compelled to document the struggles and hardship of America’s 1.8 million forgotten homeless youth, after struggling with financial hardship in New York City at the age of 19, became more than a passion project for him. Leoni launched the Spare Some Change nonprofit to engage and empower homeless youth to change their lives and create a stable future. The film earned the Social Impact Award at the Hollywood Film Festival and Excellence Award at the Impact Doc Awards! The film has a run time of 104 minutes. American Street Kid begins streaming worldwide today on Apple, Amazon Prime, Spectrum, and another popular services. To learn more about more the American Street Kid documentary, click here.