Reeling 2020: “Pier Kids” puts a lens on queer homelessness

Pier Kids (Reeling 2020) Pier Kids (Reeling 2020)

Elegance Bratton’s documentary is a kaleidoscopic view of the unhoused queer youth of Chelsea Pier.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2020 Reeling Chicago International LGBTQ+ Film Festival.)

Following his insightful eye from the ballroom culture of Harlem in their spectacular series ‘My House’ on Viceland to the Cinderellas after midnight on Christopher Street, Elegance Bratton’s Pier Kids gives us a kaleidoscopic view of the unhoused queer BIPOC youth continuing the community legacy of New York’s Chelsea Pier. 

Pier Kids is one of those unflinching documentaries you can never fully prepare for. Where other documentaries of its kind often are paraded around festivals as trauma porn or morality plays for white middle-class audiences, director Bratton and producer Chester Algernal have created a challenging documentary that implicates, rather than swaddles, its audience. It’s a bold, head-on look at harsh realities that succeeds in celebrating its subjects. Its view is hardly comprehensive, but it lays some heavy groundwork like the queer documentaries that have come before.

We immediately open on the racial disparity of “progress” for queers post-Stonewall. There are 2 million homeless youths in America. 1 million of those are LGBTQ+ and of that 1 million, 40% are BIPOC. Where the ancestral documentaries of this film like The Queen (1968) and Paris is Burning (1990) hardly ever turn to systems or statistics, Bratton uses this information as a tuning fork to set the tone for the rest of the film. This is about the lived experience behind those numbers.

Pier Kids (Reeling 2020)
Pier Kids (Reeling 2020)

We mostly focus on Krystal LaBeija Dixon (never to be confused with legend Crystal LaBeija), Casper, and Desean, out and queer BIPOC youths facing housing insecurity. They each, in their own way, have contributed to the life and legacy of the Chelsea Piers, doing what queers do best, making worlds inside of worlds. They have moments of resilience, courage, and radical love that perfectly illustrate how queer kinship is “birthing a love for somebody” and why it’s so important.

‘Unflinching’ is a word that gets thrown about in reviews without any clarification as to how it applies. In the case of Pier Kids, it means that Bratton doesn’t look away; the camera’s eye doesn’t shutter. You must face real, unedited ugliness.

The clumsy mental gymnastics of a drunk racist casing the youth are wince-inducing to watch. But the way Desean lays out the “hate the sin, love the sinner” embrace of Krystal’s family members so matter-of-factly in front of her and the cameras is truly heart-rending. I begged for a cutaway. We see how harmful ideological systems work at home — how biological family, the thing that’s supposed to provide the sturdiest shelter, often leads to the exact opposite for queer youths. It’s a remarkable bit of true life, with all its naked complexity, that I won’t forget.

Bratton doesn’t look away; the camera’s eye doesn’t shutter. You must face real, unedited ugliness.

Pier Kids is also an economics lesson for the fragile existence of queer youth: we can see how $100 or $200 can tear at a chosen family. We see the violence and coercion queer people endure to earn money and the theft necessary to survive. Desean offers the most valuable and damning lesson of all: in his experience with the bureaucracy behind housing insecurities, his options for getting off the streets are prison or becoming HIV+. Because, tragically, “there’s something for the system to manipulate in your favor.” It’s another uncomfortably frank conversation. In this brief moment, Desean exposes the inequities of the system.

While it doesn’t dig as deep into the systems that hold queer people down as I’d like, Bratton’s real focus is the people, and that’s as it should be. Like The Queen and Paris is Burning, which Bratton and the youths openly cite, this documentary is as much about the moments and expressions of queer joy as it is about the hardships and deaths. It cherishes the culture forged from struggle. Through everything, these queers will laugh and vogue, but most importantly, they will find each other in their own special world.

Pier Kids Trailer:

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