Film Review: Pier Kids ★★★★

Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic — boy, am I tired of starting articles with those words — film festivals around the world are finding new methods of distributing movies to fans. An unexpected benefit of the situation is that festivals, which are by their very nature dependent on geography, open themselves up to film fans nationwide when they offer their lineups over the Internet instead.

The latest film festival to innovate is Outfest, which typically runs several festivals a year based out of Los Angeles. For Pride Month they have launched a new digital festival, United in Pride, and what’s more, they have opened the entire collection up for free. When you visit the homepage of their streaming site,, you’re prompted by a notice that the promo code UNITED2020 will get you 60 days free. The United in Pride festival goes until June 28th, with new films being added throughout the month, so that promo code will in effect get you free access to the entire festival!

Screencap from Pier Kids

The first feature film streaming at Outfest’s United in Pride is Pier Kids, a stunning, timely documentary about the lives of the mostly-homeless LGBTQ+ youth of color who congregate at the Christopher Street Pier in New York City. Elegance Bratton’s doc follows three people in particular: Krystal Labeija, a woman of trans experience; Jusheem Thorne aka Casper, a bisexual skateboarder; and DeSean Irby, a gay man in his twenties who dreams of being housed.

The youth of the Christopher Street Pier deal with harassment from cops, assault by the men who hire them for sex, street fights with each other, rejection by their family, and more, all captured with a startling immediacy and frankness by Bratton’s camera. Sometimes the film’s stark portrayal of sex work, fear of HIV, and general life on the street is reminiscent of Larry Clark’s Kids, except Pier Kids doesn’t sensationalize a single moment or use any of it for shock value the way the fictionalized Kids did. This is just what life is like for queer black youth always a day or two from living on the street; in other words, whereas Kids gleefully wallows in hedonism, Pier Kids affords its subjects incredible dignity, never condemning them for a moment.

When DeSean describes his complicated routine that enables him to have “confiscated, aka boosted, aka stole” groceries for the week, he may as well be describing how he gets ready to go to work in the morning. “I don’t feel like it’s wrong,” he says. “I don’t feel like it’s right, either. But I do feel like, in order for me to live, if I know that I can do this periodically, and I can do it in the sense of moderation, and I don’t rely on doing it, it’s worth the risk.” Pier Kids seems to agree.

Krystal Labeija. Screencap from Pier Kids.

The film spends the most time with Krystal Labeija — not the Crystal Labeija, she clarifies, but Krystal Labeija nonetheless. Krystal and the kids on the pier recite the Crystal Labeija’s iconic backstage read from the 1968 documentary The Queen with the reverence of churchgoers quoting scripture, insisting on their own beauty no matter what society tells them. “She stormed off that all-white pageant stage,” Krystal says in amazement, “and she said, ‘Take a picture of me and take a picture of her, and tell me which one sells more. I’m not saying she’s not pretty, but she wasn’t better than me tonight!'”

Krystal calls herself a “woman of trans experience,” bristling at the idea that she has to clarify what kind of woman she is. She was kicked out of her house when she came out to her mother, and the documentary follows her as she returns home in an attempt to show her mother who she is now. Her mother and aunt are stridently transphobic; her aunt insists on referring to her as her “nephew,” questioning why she can’t “take off this lifestyle and leave it at the door” in order to placate her mother. Her mother insists, “I gave birth to a son… It has nothing to do with respect, it has nothing to do with disrespecting him… it has to do with, he’s my son.”

Krystal, her mother, and her aunt. Screencap from Pier Kids.

Bratton reframes the shot to reveal that this isn’t just an interview with Krystal’s mom and aunt, but that Krystal is there, too. She sits on the couch, looking pained, her usually fabulous outfits traded for an oversized coat and a gigantic hat. When she tries to explain to her mom and aunt that this isn’t a choice, and that if she could have chosen she wouldn’t have picked this, her mother can’t even make eye contact. It’s heartbreaking.

Whereas many documentaries erase the off-camera interviewer from talking head moments, Pier Kids wisely sometimes leaves in Bratton’s voice as he talks with his subjects, joking around with them. Combined with the often handheld cinematography — the director himself was the one holding the camera throughout, down on the streets with the kids, jostling through crowds — it makes for an intimate, personal experience.

Bratton has an incredibly artistic eye for framing a shot on the fly, as best exemplified by an emotional sequence where DeSean describes his history of teetering precariously between being housed and homeless, always existing in in-between spaces, on the verge of something different. He leans up against a window casually to finish telling the story; Bratton frames the shot so DeSean is literally on the line between inside and outside, and he keeps an advertisement in the picture reading “Make This Space Work for You.” It’s exactly what DeSean has done his whole life, and it’s what Bratton is doing in the moment, and it’s what the kids on the Christopher Street Pier have been doing for years.

Screencap from Pier Kids.

I watched this film after getting home from the All Black Lives Matter march in Hollywood, where 30,000 people walked for miles to highlight the importance of centering the specific struggles faced by trans black people and queer black people when we say that Black Lives Matter. On the same day, similar marches took place in Chicago and in Brooklyn, where everyone wore white. In any other context, Pier Kids would be a triumph as it is. Now, available to stream this month, it’s vital.

By Eric Langberg

Pier Kids is available to stream now as part of Outfest’s United in Pride Festival. Use promo code UNITED2020 for free access. United in Pride is also showing Mike Mosallam’s Breaking Fast; you can find our review of that film here.

Gia Love, star of former Outfest doc KIKI, will join director Elegance Bratton for a live-streamed Q&A on Outfest’s social channels this Wednesday, June 17th at 5:30PM PST.

Pier Kids will also stream via New York film festival NewFest later this month, followed by a Q&A; information and tickets are available here.

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