Content Warning: The documentary explores drug use and addiction and the narrative involves sexual assault.
For at least 10 years, Laughn Elliott Doescher presided over Seattle, Washington, living in an RV and providing support of various kinds of the sex workers working in the Aurora Avenue area. Sometimes this meant a hot meal, a place to rest, or a friendly ear. Going by his middle name, Elliott developed trust among the rotating door of individuals who would work the area, becoming a confidant who outwardly cared for them a great deal. First-time feature directors Elisa Levine and Gabriel Miller set out to capture, as close to life as possible, what was happening in the shadow of Seattle’s tech hub excess in their documentary Sweetheart Deal, screening during Slamdance Film Festival 2023. They found Elliott, a man who offered aid to those who need it, and his RV, an always-available save space for sex workers. What they ended up chronicling is the stuff of nightmares, confirming that anyone — regardless of social status — is just one bad day away from making life-altering choices and that wolves so often look like sheep.
Going into Sweetheart Deal, be advised that there’s no set-up, no structure, no real anchor of any kind. Like life itself, Levine and Miller throw the audience in and, especially for those not familiar with the narrative, there’s a lot about the documentary that is, ultimately, jarring. This is entirely to the film’s advantage because, once acclimated to the cinéma vérité approach, the audience is well and truly deep in with the five individuals we’re following: Elliott, Kristine, Tammy, Amy, and Sara. Without question, there’re likely more individuals who crossed paths with Elliott during the period of recording, but zeroing in on these four and the relationships they possess with him enables the directors to not lose the forest for the trees, especially as the truth of their relationships come to light. Without knowing where the film leads, the lack of structure, the mere capturing of conversations, of recording confessionals nontraditionally, and just tracking their lives feels, at times, rudderless, as though we’re adrift in moments, uncertain of their meaning until we’re well into the documentary and can see who each of these people are. We, the audience, know the documentary is leading somewhere, but it never quite solidifies as we learn more about how each of the four women ended up as sex workers and drug addicts, each with different backgrounds that led them to the same spot. With an incredible amount of candor, these four women open up their lives to us as they use opioids, as they explain what they know it’s doing to them, and why they want to stop but feel they can’t. Again, because Levine and Miller utilize cinéma vérité, at no point does the audience feel as though we’re being taken somewhere specific, but moving as if we’re following a dream that has no clear beginning and a nightmarish end.
Given the subject matter, one might expect Levine and Miller to apply dramatic effects like scoring or tricky editing in order to amplify unease or to create a specific emotion from the audience. For most of the documentary, Levine and Miller skillfully disappear to the point that the audience forgets that they’re watching an organized, edited, and produced project. Instead, the audience gets swept up in the story that is the lives of these four women and the man they interact with and often come to rely on regularly. The opening is, perhaps, the most staged of the entire film and that’s because it has to start somewhere. First, in a completely innocuous moment, the film opens with Elliott feeding stray pigeons and capturing one. He says reassuring things to it, something which is, on its own, nothing that should worry or generate fear. A few moments later, during an establishing shot of the city landscape of Seattle, we’re played audio of a recorded call from a prison and Elliott’s voice is heard. It’s at this moment the audience gets its first clue that Elliott is not who he appears to be. Further into the documentary, Elliott is shown calling to the pigeon, now living in his RV with him, and Elliott asks the bird: “Gonna warn everyone about me? Huh? How I mistreated you and fed you and fattened you up? And saved you from certain death? Hm … and wouldn’t let you go until you were ready?” He says this with a bit of sadness as he gently strokes the bird who exhibits no fear or concern at his touch. The opening in concert with this scene become downright chilling later in its suggestion that Elliott knew exactly who he was even if no one else did until it was too late.
In an effort to keep things spoiler-free, as well as to reduce discussing triggering content, I’ve avoided explicitly stating what Elliott is guilty of, but it’s the kind of crime that should result in absolute banishment from society. If you’d like to learn the details, you can read this report by Levi Pulkkinen of SeattlePI.com.
Though I imagine that choices were made in the final phases of production by Levine and Miller as to what they should show, what they shouldn’t, and the ethics surrounding their work, nothing in Sweetheart Deal comes across as opportunistic or craven. Rather, the film ends up surprising the audience as caught up as we become in the lives of the four women and their individual trajectories. One can imagine another version of Sweetheart Deal that is more traditional, focuses more on their personal beliefs about addiction, that drives a specific narrative — that is the lesser film. In this version, the audience doesn’t just get to know these people, they grow invested to the point that, by the end of the film, at least for this reviewer, I was beside myself with anger, frustration, and horror. As a society, we’ve chosen to create circumstances in which people who form addictions must overcome Sisyphean-level challenges to beat them and, even then, won’t necessarily get the support they need to stay clean. Because of this, when help arrives, it can feel welcome, even when we know we’re losing something in the exchange. This is our fault and we should be doing something about it.
Screened during Slamdance Film Festival 2023.
For more information, head to the official Sweetheart Deal website.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.
Categories: In Theaters, Reviews
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