‘The Homestretch’ Review: Another Pressing Issue With Another Prosaic Documentary
If you come away with anything at the end of The Homestretch, it should be that there are tens of thousands of homeless youths in Chicago. But I just told you that, so do you need to watch the 90-minute film? Perhaps if you want to put a face to a statistic. Or three faces. Directors Ann de Mare and Kirsten Kelly followed a trio of representatives of the city’s (and nation’s) homeless youth issue, each with a distinguishing dilemma. Roque is an undocumented teen abandoned by his parents and temporarily living in the basement of a teacher’s house. Kasey was also sent packing by family, mainly because she’s a lesbian. And Anthony is a former criminal who has been homeless since 14, now aiming to get his GED and custody of his infant son, who is in foster care.
Not a lot happens in the film other than very spread out and brief encounters with these characters over the course of what seems to be a year, maybe longer. They graduate, apply to college, find new housing options, shelters close for lack of funding, the stuff you’d expect from stories like theirs. It’s almost easy to predict how this very formulated documentary plays out. Always in the end there’s just titles explaining where the subjects are at when the credits roll, regardless of whether their narratives had an interesting climax. After all, that’s life, not neatly wrapped up in story arcs. This doesn’t mean I can’t feel like I’ve watched a lot of nothing, and in the end Roque, Kasey and Anthony remain figures of an issue, still statistics more than characters in a movie.
We can imagine how the making of The Homestretch went. De Mare and Kelly documented a lot more characters and then pared down to the three. The lack of focus from the start is apparent in the way we mostly learn things through expository titles popping up every time the film goes back to one of the subjects. Another big moment for one of them was captured by a cell phone, because obviously the filmmakers can’t be there all the time. But I’ve never accepted that excuse. Documentary filmmakers should be on their subjects or at least on call at all times. Or give us what you got and make it about the difficulty of the effort. To learn that subjects were difficult to track down at times, I was disappointed that the doc doesn’t say so. And, more importantly, show so.
I’m reminded of Which Way Home, the Oscar-nominated documentary from five years ago about unaccompanied kids trying to get to America by train. One of the most fascinating parts of the film involves director Rebecca Cammisa’s inability to stay with and on some of her subjects as they hop new railcars. We got the feeling of the uncertainty and spontaneity that goes with such a story. The Homestretch doesn’t allow us to feel much because it does more telling and gives us mostly filler footage that barely allows us to get to know the people. Documentaries of this kind are old-fashioned (in the sense that they were the standard about 10 years ago) and very ineffective as either social problem films or character pieces. Even presenting us with a single subject and storyline would have worked more than the usual triptych of unrelated delegates. Or a lot more than three, to illustrate the enormity of the issue.
Frankly, this is a rare disappointment from Kartemquin Films, the production company behind many of the features of Steve James as well as plenty other shining examples of nonfiction narrative and character study. The Homestretch only heightens how much better James’s Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters are at finding not just deserving stories and people and problems. Those films captured extraordinary moments, while this one only has recorded scenes. I hate to say the kids in the doc are a bore, and I suppose they really aren’t. It’s the tedious doc that fails them more than vice versa.
The Homestretch opens in Chicago this friday.