Tiny turned out O.K., all things considered. At least that’s the initial impression given by “Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell,” a decades-later follow-up to “Streetwise,” the Oscar-nominated 1985 documentary from the filmmaker Martin Bell, the photographer Mary Ellen Mark and the journalist Cheryl McCall.
That movie chronicled the lives of teenagers on the streets of Seattle. The subject who emerged most vividly, also captured in some of Mark’s most recognizable pictures, was Erin Blackwell, who had the nickname Tiny. Early in “Streetwise,” speaking to an off-camera medical professional, Erin blithely discusses turning tricks, her suspicions that she has contracted another venereal disease and her thoughts on the possibility of being pregnant — at age 14.
“Tiny” mainly unfolds 30 years later, interspersing clips from “Streetwise” and its outtakes and from check-ins from over the years. Erin is introduced going through old photographs with Mark (who died in 2015, before this film was completed). Erin plays with her children — six out of 10 of whom live with her at the outset — in the marshy Seattle-area banks. Their home appears to be filled with puppies. She met her husband, Will, on a chat line. Knowing her past, he does not judge her. “You have to accept people for who they are,” he says.
But the Blackwell residence is not as even-keeled as it first appears. Erin still struggles with addiction. There is friction between one of her sons, Rayshon, and Will, who wants to keep him out of prison. A grown son, Daylon — shown as the parent of an infant — talks about smoking heroin. “To smoke every day, it’s nothing I would suggest to anybody, but I mean, it helps through stressful situations,” he says.
Erin’s older children, like Keanna, who was taken from Erin by the state, weren’t raised by her. The splintering of the family left lasting wounds. (“How do you just be O.K. with where your kids are at?” Daylon asks, rhetorically.) There is a harrowing confrontation with Erin about her drug use and another scene in which she calls the police on one of her children.
The combination of “Streetwise” and “Tiny” belongs on a short list with “Boyhood,” the “Up” documentaries and “Hoop Dreams” as exemplars of time-capsule filmmaking. The pair of films not only has much to say about the legacy of poverty (a legacy that includes Erin’s mother, seen toward the end), but also about aging, the capacity for reinvention and the possibilities of film. (The older clips are always mediated — we see sprocket holes on the sides of the 16-millimeter excerpts from “Streetwise,” and material from intervening years is filmed off a tablet.)
The closing credits express gratitude to Erin and her family for sharing their lives over 32 years. As tough as “Tiny” can be to watch, viewers will share that gratitude.
Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 27 minutes.
TINY: The Life of Erin Blackwell
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