In the oversaturated cinematic climate of 2019, sequels are semi-hated. The concept of second chapters continuing narratives and diving deeper into characters has vanished in favor of releasing uninspired, cliche follow-ups to franchises that most of the populace never cared about, to begin with. While this diatribe may seem unrelated to “Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell,” Martin Bell’s spiritual successor to his 1984 documentary “Streetwise,” the film surprisingly showcases a prime formula for how a sequel should be executed.
Taking place over 30 years after her stint as a teenage runaway on the streets of Seattle, ‘Tiny’ documents the family dynamic of Erin “Tiny” Blackwell in the aftermath of “Streetwise.” As the mother of 10 children, Blackwell’s life has changed radically—the proud mother is no longer a carefree, homeless 14-year-old prostitute with no future prospects and has mostly come to terms with her prior mistakes. Yet, the complications of her past continue to haunt her. Her own addiction and her kids’ run-ins with the law contribute to a less-than-picturesque family structure, and Blackwell’s lack of parental guidance as a teenage mother still contributes to a strained relationship between herself and her oldest children.
Standing on its own merits, ‘Tiny’ shines as a complicated character study that speaks on the current state of poverty in the United States. Conversely, as a continuation of the story initiated by “Streetwise,” the film adopts a greater emotional connection as a somewhat optimistic companion piece to its bittersweet predecessor. Keeping in tune with its forerunner, ‘Tiny’ seeks to address the concept of parental failures.
In “Streetwise,” Blackwell’s relationship with her mother was complicated, to say the least, and significantly suffered due to the impact of alcoholism. This situation could be interpreted as the springboard for Blackwell’s own addictive tendencies, which she subsequently passed down to her own children, Daylon in particular, her oldest son. Moreover, glimpses into the relationship between Blackwell and her mother in ‘Tiny,’ while still strained, illustrate a somewhat peaceful reconciliation, although interpolations of older footage demonstrate this resolution is fairly fresh.
Unfortunately, on the filmmaking side of the spectrum, “Tiny” wavers both as a companion piece and a standalone project. The cut-and-dry minimalism contributes to the unabashed honesty of the film, but the distracted, repetitive narrative guides the audience down a road devoid of a clear destination. At its conclusion, the documentary cuts off its loose ends rather than tying them together into a cohesive final thought. Furthermore, the topics addressed in ‘Tiny,’ as relevant as they might be, are far from unexplored territory in the documentary landscape. Whereas “Streetwise” approached its subject matter with creative energy and a definitive artistic vision, ‘Tiny’ comes across as a well-intentioned afterthought with its focus exclusively set on fostering an emotional reaction that simply does not exist.
Nevertheless, when the documentary takes its time to delve into themes like legacy, consequences, and parenthood, its greatness cannot be ignored. As the presumably final piece of an endeavor that spans the better part of three decades, the film subtly captures the evolution of the United States itself from the viewpoint of those who many regrettably ignore. While its topics and execution may not compare to the masterful, unforgettable grittiness of “Streetwise,” ‘Tiny’ is a sobering contemplation on flaws, forgiveness, and redemption that deserves to be recognized. [B-]
“Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell” has been recently restored and is now playing at Metrography in New York City.