You know a movie about homeless teens is effective when the thirteen-year-old watching the film in 1991 has a strong desire to become homeless teen. It wasn’t the excessive drug use, prostitution and violence of living on the streets that attracted me, it was that this was a tight-knit group of friends who enjoyed each other’s company and cared about each other. As I was navigating the social topography of junior high school, a group was all I wished for. This is probably why this R-rated film was a commercial failure, as its rating prevented those who would have loved it film actually seeing it in the theaters.
And what an ensemble. Sean Astin, Balthazar Getty, Ricki Lake, Alyssa Milano, Lara Flynn Boyle…all doing drugs, prostituting themselves, shooting people, begging on the streets. But this wasn’t filmed as an after-school special. THe film doesn’t condone the behavior, but does a great job of depicting the harsh lives of these teens while making them realized characters. If anything, it may have helped a few donations to combat teen homelessness. Me? I just wished I could hang out with them. The opening montage set to Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” showing various homeless teens in Hollywood rivals many of the great musical city prologue montages, right up there with Philadelphia and the “People Are Strange” montage from The Lost Boys.
As with any ensemble films, it can be difficult for the audience to connect with the characters, as there is limited time to spend with each one. WTDTY excels in this using the plot device of King (Dermot Mulroney), being the de facto leader of the group, introducing a new runaway Heather (Lara Flynn Boyle) to the group, so the audience meets and gets to know them as Heather does. It’s a little film school 101, but hey, it works. The film is also framed by King being interviewed by a caseworker, which provides voice-over narration without using the cliche of voice-over narration.
King is both the social alpha and the father figure to the group. They hang out on Hollywood Boulevard, sleep under overpasses, all while taking care of themselves. Woo-hoo! No parents. Thirteen is a great age to fantasize about living in a world with no adults; no coincidence I was also obsessed with stories about summer camp and boarding schools. Each character was confident and had a certain personality quirk. Will Smith was the paraplegic smart-alec, Sean Astin was the heroin addict with the heart of gold. My obsession at that time was with Balthazar Getty’s character Little J, one, because I was totally crushin’, two, he wore striped sport socks with shorts, which I thought was super cool (and was about fifteen years ahead American Apparel) and three, he was a male prostitute, which I found absolutely fascinating. One, because gay culture and visible characters weren’t exactly all over the place in 1991, and he was a prostitute, which was scandalous in itself.
He often visited the home of his john, played by the ubiquitous Stephen Tobolowsky. Tobolowsky is certainly played up to be the creepy pedo type, saying a lot about what the film thought about men that hired male prostitutes. To be fair, Little J is supposedly only fifteen, so there’s that, and the film isn’t exactly espousing third wave feminist views about sex workers. However, my sheltered mind was racing: people really do that? To the film’s credit, they don’t sensationalize the act, the focus is on Little J’s reluctance and his internal struggle to go through with the act.
[My secret obsession with teenage prostitutes would be fed further with the tv movie The Price of Love, starring Peter Faccinelli as a runaway who is forced to sell himself on the streets. All I remember is that when he was “working” he took off his shirt to signal potential clients. Shirt back on = “not available.” I remembr being hung up on the flaws of this system. ]
In a role that could quickly turn to trite, Dermot Mulroney completely owns his role as King. He’s charismatic on screen, he’s very convincing in the interviews, and he’s both tragic and likeable. Too bad Mulroney turned to doing trite romantic comedies. The acting of the cast is also top-notch, making them seem much older than their supposed teen years. This could be because their characters need to grow up quickly, or the fact that adults were still being cast as teenagers.
There has never been a film even remotely close to Where the Day Takes You, one in which doesn’t glamorize the immoral behavior of the characters, but also makes them real characters. Homeless people as developed, humanized characters aren’t usually the protagonists of films, unless its some fantastical gang in a sci-fi world. it’s an interesting concept, and I’d be curious to see how this film would be cast and put to screen today.