American Street Kid

Movie review by
Michael Ordona, Common Sense Media
American Street Kid Movie Poster Image
Unflinching docu has strong language, drug use, more.
  • NR
  • 2018
  • 104 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Through some very rough experiences/material, film is mostly about deep human need to be loved and for someone to believe in us. Most of all, it demonstrates potential for some people to recover from terrible circumstances and get on the road to becoming better versions of themselves.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Filmmaker becomes main character, and while few people can be expected to do what he does -- take homeless kids in to live in his home, etc. -- in this case, it works out. Many of the kids do fall through the cracks; for others, positive direction they're set on is tenuous. But some do seem to rise above dreadful circumstances.


Nothing is shown, but several accounts of beatings, robberies, rape, child molestation, attempted rape, murder -- all happening to kids. Danger of living on the street is constantly in the air.


Nothing shown, but prostitution is discussed.


Pervasive, extremely strong profanity with a strong impact. "F--k" is the most common; many others include "s--t," "ass," "bitch," and more.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Pervasive drug use, both discussed and shown, all involving real teens. Drugs include meth, heroin, crack, marijuana, and alcohol.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that American Street Kid is an unflinching documentary about the nightmarish dangers, drug use, and hunger faced by unhoused teens in the Santa Monica, California, area. Filmmaker Michael Leoni starts out connecting with street kids to make a public service announcement; he ends up being drawn into their lives over several years. Expect constant, extreme language ("f--k," "s--t," "bitch," and more), as well as pervasive drug use (including heroin and meth), all involving teens. There are also stories of horrific childhood traumas, from beatings and robberies to rape, molestation, and murder. But underneath the rough stuff is a clear message about the deep human need to be loved and for someone to believe in you.

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What's the story?

In AMERICAN STREET KID, theater director/filmmaker Michael Leoni initially connects with unhoused teens living in the Santa Monica, California, area to make a public service announcement. But then he ends up getting involved in several of their lives over a period of multiple years. The resulting documentary follows the kids' rough lives and Leoni's often stymied attempts to help them get off the street.

Is it any good?

This is a wrenching, painful, twisting climb with many drops into oblivion, but there are occasional success stories that make the journey worthwhile. You're rooting hard for these kids, who are living in such harrowing circumstances, often just trying to survive after being abandoned or chased out of everywhere else. But the experience of watching American Street Kid comes with a major cinematic caveat: It's not a traditional documentary. It doesn't conform to narrative or journalistic standards, which creates an unintentional distance between viewer and subject. The filmmaker becomes the main character, though not to the look-at-me-look-at-me level of someone like Morgan Spurlock. As the movie's tagline asserts, it "begins as a documentary," meaning Leoni quickly abandons all pretense of objective observation and bonds with his subjects. In a way, the film is about how he can't turn away from what he finds.

The kids' stories are compelling. One wants badly to be a father, though he has no plan to get himself and his pregnant girlfriend off the street. Another is a talented singer, who's obviously intelligent but can't seem to shake the emotional effects of being abandoned as an infant. "I wish there was a hero," he sings, "There doesn't seem to be." Though Leoni's actions, including taking several of the kids into his home, aren't practical examples for most who want to help, the film could shine a light on an overlooked issue in America (as did the indie gem Lean on Pete). But be warned: Although there are uplifting turns to some of the stories, most can be represented by this exchange: Kid: "I feel bad for you." Leoni: "Why do you feel bad for me?" Kid: "Because there's no hope for us."

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the phenomenon of homelessness among young people in the United States. Why do you think so many kids are unhoused? What prevents them from getting off the street?

  • American Street Kid includes some very mature content, from swearing to drug use, to discussion of violent acts. Are these things appropriate to put in a documentary? Why or why not? What would the film be like without them?

  • What did you think about the filmmaker getting so involved with his subjects? Should documentaries be objective? Why or why not?

Movie details

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