American Vagabond is a story exiled beyond the boundaries of the American Dream. James, our main subject and narrator, and his boyfriend Tyler are gay teenagers who leave their Middle America homes for San Francisco, fleeing homophobia and chasing a gay utopia. They imagine the city as it has been mythologised: a haven – or at the very least a community – for queers. Without the financial means or cultural access available to better-educated or more privileged men they find the city hostile, and themselves homeless. It is a film that aches. It aches to watch Tyler doggedly apply for jobs that we know he won’t get and it aches to listen to James talk about how he needs to provide for Tyler because he’s family, and know that his family refused to do the same.
James and Tyler are sweet with each other, to the point where it appears that Susanna Helke, the film’s Finnish director, expects this to carry a lot of the weight the first half of the film. Later the relationship becomes fraught, but there is little of this tension onscreen. The omission is probably selective, done to keep the emotional pitch of the film within a certain range.
Helke, who works as a theorist and academic as well as a documentary filmmaker, readily does away with any pretence of there being a clear boundary around the documentary genre in American Vagabond. There are very few of the mainstream marks of a documentary: there are no talking heads, no information-dumps, no third-party narration and there is no clarification on what footage is ‘first-hand’, which scenes are re-enacted or the extent to which they’ve been choreographed. The usual implication in documentaries is that there is a line between how-it-was and how-it’s-being-told, and that the former should defer to the latter.
Helke, however, has previously described her other documentaries as “replayed reality”, which she elaborates as “performing and recording the historical real”, through the embrace of stylistic devices – mise-en-scène, montage, extra-diegetic sound, controlled composition, and “re-arranging situations” according to the “pre-existing conditions” and “actual experiences” of the documentary’s subjects. Though Helke’s conceptualisation of “replayed reality” is meant to allow for a documentary filmmaking to exist on a spectrum rather than within a dichotomy, the synthesis doesn’t work quite as smoothly when put to practice in American Vagabond.
The accessible visual beauty of Helke’s cinematography and the professional sentimentalism of the soundtrack create a polished narrative that remains somehow discordant with James’ voiceover. His voiceover tells us about emotional cornerstones rather than factual ones: for example, that James didn’t like hunting with his father as a child, because he “didn’t like to see the animals dead, he liked to see them alive.” Though he takes us through an incredibly difficult and at times frighteningly bleak story, there is surprisingly little inflection or emotional variation in James’ monotone. At times the flatline voiceover sounds over-rehearsed. As the film progresses, however, his steadiness blunts the need for an immediate charisma and his vulnerability is both sincere and sympathetic, if still discordant with Helke’s emotional orchestration.
While there is the confronting relay of suicidal thoughts and ongoing depression, much of the brunt of homophobia and homelessness upon James and Tyler is told to us by James indirectly, or in miniature, to great effect. They never have clean clothes; there’s no money for a laundromat; and they’d really like to do their laundry. The economic and psychological indignities and abuse faced by homeless queer youth are inextricable, and they are brought home to the viewer in very tangible ways. The camera slowly roams over their clothes and shoes lying in the grass as James’ voiceover recounts a much older man demanding sex from him and Tyler after luring them to his house under the pretence of letting them do their washing there.
Although Helke’s documentary style avoids providing generalised information, her choice of subjects in James and Tyler is grounded in an awareness of the issues facing the homeless queer community as a whole. Prostitution is one such issue explored in the film (alongside suicide, depression and incarceration) and many of film’s viewers will already know that the rates of homeless queer youth who engage in sex work are much higher than average. For those who do not it’s worth learning: a recent Times article noted that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender homeless youth are seven times more likely to have engaged in such work – ‘survival sex’ – than their straight counterparts.
The documentary never moves toward a happy resolution. It moves away from the parks and bellies of bridges under which James and Tyler sleep and into the houses of their families – James’ mother appears to become a figure of empathy and belated support – but also into prison. James has sex with an underage boy, apparently unaware of his age. Upon finding out, the boy’s father and stepfather push for his prosecution, and the implication we can make is that they do so out of homophobia. We never get details of the case from anything other than James’ voiceover – with the exception of a brief conclusion – and part of the effect this has on the film is to create a sense of insularity; perhaps a reflection, albeit passing and paled, of the insularity that James endures.
The original hope of the film, that San Francisco will offer another, queer bent on the American Dream, is dashed by a lack of access and money. Structured and focussed differently, it could serve as biting commentary on the white, capitalist core at the heart of this dream but instead the movie chooses to end with a quasi-reconciliation with the ‘value’-strong family that originally cast James out of the safehold of the American home. And it does seem fair to say ‘choose’ – although the film is a documentary, as ‘replayed reality’ it is stylised, composed and selected to a degree that makes it impossible not to give Helke more authorial credit than usually due to a documentary director. While the tone is far from optimistic and we leave James in prison, serving a sentence that seems deeply unfair, Helke includes not only an actual reconciliation with his mother, but the potential of one with his otherwise unseen father. After that, it seems that the film has somewhat forfeited the more scathing critique to tug on heartstrings instead. And this it does well; the film is worth seeing for the delicacy of emotion as well as for its undeniable political importance.