Young, restless, and living on the streets. Documentary `Streetwise' probes the hand-to-mouth life of homeless children

Raising children is a complicated job. So is growing up. Not everyone meets these challenges with success -- because of apathy, ill will, or hard circumstances that seem beyond control. Whatever the cause, the result to society is often the same: a new crop of rootless kids like the ones in ``Streetwise,'' a harrowing new documentary shot in Seattle by director Martin Bell.

The boys and girls in this movie have several things in common. Lacking conventional homes, they live and eat where they can. They pick up money by prostitution or other forms of hustling.

They pour impressive amounts of intelligence and energy -- assets that could be of real value to themselves and others -- into a day-to-day struggle for survival.

And they think on such different wavelengths from their mothers and fathers that they may as well be on separate planets. Every so often the generations meet for a brief visit, and the encounter is usually marked by impotence and ignorance on both sides.

Something is lost from a parental admonition when the parent sits on the other side of a window in a prison's visiting room, or passes off a 14-year-old's prostitution by observing, ``It's a phase she's going through.''

The most striking aspect of ``Streetwise'' is how innocent and vulnerable its young characters seem. Most of them are basically nice, bright kids who would be sailing through life in other surroundings -- and who stand up to their present woes of poverty, illness, and exploitation with bravery and resilience. The movie celebrates their resourcefulness without glossing over the miseries they face or evading the awful prices they pay (suicide, in one pathetic case) for ``not knowing any better'' than the restless, hand-to-mouth life they've been sucked into.

As documentaries go, ``Streetwise'' is overproduced and even tricky at times, underscoring its points with busy camera work and editing techniques instead of letting the poignant material speak for itself. Yet it remains a powerful experience, as touching and immediate as any fictional treatment of a similar subject in recent memory. `Alamo Bay'

A few years ago on the Gulf Coast of Texas, violence broke out between local fishermen and Vietnamese immigrants who wanted to share their fishing ground.

``Alamo Bay'' takes this striking event and flattens it into a standard Hollywood yarn, failing to capture the emotional depth or cultural complexity that the subject cries out for. This is a surprise as well as a pity since the director, Louis Malle, is not only a gifted filmmaker but an American immigrant (from France) in his own right.

Part of the problem lies in Alice Arlen's screenplay, which insists on seeing the heart of the story -- a seething cultural and economic rivalry -- through the lens of ordinary melodrama.

Much of the movie's energy, and our time, is lavished on the rocky romance of a rough redneck (Ed Harris) and a fisherman's daughter (Amy Madigan) who has the courage to leave her man when he goes wrong. The challenges and hardships faced by the new immigrant (Ho Nguyen) are squeezed between plodding scenes of courtship, sex, and jealousy.

This would be all right if the romance worked as a symbol of something larger and more important; but the action is so stiffly constructed that it's hard to read many deeper meanings into it.

When the movie does face reality straight on -- in scenes involving the Ku Klux Klan, for instance -- we zoom from the Gulf Coast to Stereotype City, faced with trite characters and ponderous dialogue.

Add a number of overheated performances, plus a shaky sense of place and atmosphere, and you have a major disappointment from the director who once gave us such articulate social dramas as ``Lacombe Lucien'' and ``Pretty Baby'' as well as more recent dazzlers like ``Atlantic City'' and ``My Dinner With Andre.''

The topics addressed by ``Alamo Bay,'' from racism and xenophobia to greed and political ignorance, deserve much more perceptive treatment than they get here.

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