American Vagabond (2013)

SUSANNA HELKE

Bil’s rating (out of 5):  BB.5

Denmark/Finland/USA, 2013.  For Real Productions, Radiator Film.  Cinematography by Susanna Helke, .  Produced by .  Music by .  Film Editing by .

Two teenagers leave their small town and head to San Francisco, hoping that its famed tolerance towards gays and lesbians means they can leave the intolerance of their families behind.  What this documentary witnesses is actually the hardships they endure on the streets, unable to get on their feet and falling into the traps of vice that come with being homeless and broke in a major city.  Compelling footage helps sell Susanna Helke’s film that illuminates the harsh reality of many young people in America; it is estimated that up to 40% of homeless youths in the country are members of sexual minorities who find themselves in this situation because of rejection from their own homes.

The challenge of this film, however, is that Helke has chosen two people who are sometimes sympathetic but rarely charismatic, mainly because she never gets to know them all that well and allows them to exist merely as symbols of her own feelings on the documentary’s chosen issue.  James is the one whose viewpoint is favoured, his thoughts and writings narrate the piece and reveal him to be not particularly bright or practical, while his boyfriend Tyler is observed but rarely gets to express himself regarding anything that the couple endures (one scene of him applying for a job is the most we see).

Most upsetting, however, is the monumental neglect and abuse that these two suffer from the adults in their lives; no one could blame James for ending up in trouble when his family has basically thrown him away after he doesn’t turn out to be what they expect, while Tyler’s grandmother pretends to a level of hospitality that she really doesn’t live up to.  It’s a tough tale to watch, but it’s also not satisfying as a documentary, particularly given how obscure it is about the people it observes.

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