Review: ‘Sweetheart Deal,’ a documentary about sex workers of Aurora Avenue in Seattle

May 8, 2022

by Carla Hay

Tammy in “Sweetheart Deal” (Photo courtesy of Aurora Stories LLC)

“Sweetheart Deal”

Directed by Elisa Levine and Gabriel Miller

Culture Representation: Taking place in Seattle from 2012 to 2016, the documentary film “Sweetheart Deal” features an almost all-white group of people (with one Native American person) representing the working-class and middle-class and who are connected in some way to sex workers of Seattle’s Aurora Avenue.

Culture Clash: The four sex workers who are featured in the documentary have struggles with exploitation and drug addiction. 

Culture Audience: “Sweetheart Deal” will appeal primarily to people interested in documentaries that reveal the brutal realities of drug-addicted sex workers.

Sara in “Sweetheart Deal” (Photo courtesy of Aurora Stories LLC)

“Sweetheart Deal” takes an unflinching look at four drug-addicted sex workers in Seattle, but what they experience can happen to anyone with the same struggles anywhere. This documentary is a cautionary tale that offers glimmers of hope. “Sweetheart Deal” doesn’t offer easy solutions to the destructive cycle of drug addiction, but the four women who shared their lives for his documentary are examples of how addicts get trapped in this cycle and need more than will power to stop their self-destruction. And sometimes, the damage is permanent.

Directed by Elisa Levine and Gabriel Miller, “Sweetheart Deal” had its world premiere at the 2022 Seattle International Film Festival. Based on events shown in the documentary, it appears to have been filmed mostly from 2012 to 2016. However, only observant viewers or those who know what happened in the movie’s real-life twists would be able to know the timeline of events and in what years they took place.

“Sweetheart Deal” was filmed and edited in a way that doesn’t make it obvious that this movie was filmed in the 2010s, although there are some subtle clues, such as the types of phones that people are using. You can also tell that this documentary was filmed before 2020 because there are no signs of people being affected by a coronavirus pandemic. “Sweetheart Deal” co-director/cinematographer Gabriel Miller died in 2019, at the age of 47.

“Sweetheart Deal” does not reveal the last names of the four women who get the spotlight in the documentary. It’s an example of society’s large stigma on people who are involved in sex work—especially for women sex workers, who usually get most of the punishment and shaming out of all the people (workers and customers) involved in the sex business. At the time this documentary was filmed, all of the women were needle-using heroin addicts selling sexual services on Seattle’s notorious Aurora Avenue, which is known as a place for rampant drug activity and prostitution.

These are the four women who get the spotlight in “Sweetheart Deal”:

  • Kristine, a welder by trade, says she got into prostitution after she couldn’t find other work.
  • Krista, using the alias Amy for her street name, was an overachieving student in high school and college until drug addiction took over her life.
  • Sara, a divorced mother of two sons and a daughter (who were teenagers at the time this documentary was filmed), lost custody of her kids because of her drug addiction.
  • Tammy, a drug addict since she was a teenager, financially supports her parents, who know she is a prostitute.

Kristine, who can be funny and sarcastic, talks about having felony convictions (which she does not detail in the documentary) that prevent her from getting a lot of jobs. At the age of 17, she says that was “on the streets” after getting out of a juvenile detention center. Despite her criminal record, Kristine is the only one in the group who is shown getting a job that’s not in the sex business. Kristine (who says she has to be high or drunk when doing sex work) does not mention anything about her family background in the documentary. However, Kristine shows that she places a high value on truth and honesty in a world full of deceit and betrayal.

Krista, who is an acquaintance of Kristine, goes through the most drastic physical transformations throughout the documentary. At her worst, she’s covered in scabs and goes through extremely painful drug-related sickness bouts, where she cries out in agony, vomits, and can barely get out of bed. Krista (who grew up in a middle-class home with her parents) is very close to her mother Stacy, who is briefly interviewed in the documentary. Stacy comes to Krista’s rescue on more than one occasion when Krista says that she wants to quit doing drugs. Multiple times throughout the documentary, Krista expresses guilt over how her drug addiction has caused her mother a lot of stress and agony.

Sara also comes from a middle-class, two-parent home. Her biggest emotional pain comes from not being able to be the type of mother that she wishes she could be. She is especially hurt over the love/hate relationship that her daughter has with her. It’s briefly mentioned that Sara’s kids are being raised by Sara’s parents and Sara’s ex-husband. Later in the movie, Sara has a medical crisis where she ends up having to be treated in a hospital. At another point in the movie, Sara moves in with her best friend Rae (who also has drug addiction problems), and she says that Rae is like a sister to her.

Tammy, who also grew up in a middle-class home, has a complicated relationship with her parents, whom she says were abusive to her when she was a child. As an example, she says that her mother would lock her out of the house, knowing that Tammy would be bullied by other kids. Tammy also says her parents kicked her out of the house when she was 12 because they didn’t want her living with them anymore. At this point in her childhood, Tammy says she got involved with a drug dealer, who set her on a path of drug addiction.

For most of the movie, Tammy is living with her parents, who know about her drug addiction, but she doesn’t do drugs in front of them. Tammy says that the seemingly nice parents that people will see in this movie are not the same parents who were cruel to her when she was a child. Tammy also says that she has forgiven her parents for mistreating her. However, there are signs that Tammy still has a lot of resentment and unresolved issues about her parents.

In a scene where Tammy is at home with her parents, her father (who calls himself a cowboy from Montana) gets emotional when he tells her how fearful he is that Tammy will get killed in her line of work. However, Tammy somewhat rolls her eyes and doesn’t seem very moved by his concerns. She later bitterly comments in a private interview that when her parents need cigarettes from her, “They know I’ll suck an extra dick, just to make sure that I have cigarettes.”

As expected, “Sweetheart Deal” shows all four women injecting heroin and trying to hustle up sex work. Their customers are not shown on camera. Some of the women are also enrolled in methadone programs in their various attempts to quit doing heroin. Tammy, who estimates that she spends $200 to $300 a day for her heroin addiction, is the one who expresses the most skepticism about her ability to quit doing drugs: “I don’t know if I’ll ever stop. I don’t see it happening.”

Near the beginning of the documentary, Kristine explains why it’s so difficult for drug addicts and other self-destructive people to quit drugs and turn their lives around for the better: “Even if you’re in the wrong life, what’s familiar is what’s comfortable … Something happens in life where somewhere along the way, they take a wrong turn, and they can’t find their way back.”

There have been many other documentaries that show how drug addicts often turn to prostitution to support their drug habits. “Sweetheart Deal” is unusual because in addition to the four sex workers featured in the movie, this documentary also prominently features a scruffy old man named Laughn Elliott Doescher, who spent a lot of time with these sex workers, by offering them a temporary place to stay and free meals in his Winnebago motorhome. Doescher became so well-known in Seattle for befriending sex workers that he was nicknamed the Mayor of Aurora.

“Sweetheart Deal” takes a very insular approach, by only interviewing the four sex workers, Doescher, his mother and Krista’s mother. Everyone else who’s seen in the documentary is not interviewed. It doesn’t feel exclusionary, because sometimes too many talking heads can ruin a documentary by making the documentary too jumbled or unfocused. It seems as if the filmmakers wanted to present the film from the perspectives of the sex workers and the man who made an impact on their lives.

Doescher (who is called by his middle name Elliott by his friends) is first seen in the documentary’s opening scene, as he gently holds some pigeons on the street. He ends up keeping one of the pigeons in his home as a pet. And he also has a pet cat. There are several scenes of Doescher treating animals with love and kindness. His motorhome is extremely cluttered and cramped, but he presents himself as someone who always has room in his home and his heart to help those who are less fortunate than he is.

One thing that the documentary never explains or shows is Doescher’s source of income, because he certainly isn’t shown working at any job. In the movie, he says he’s 63 (but he looks at least 10 years older than that), which would make him too young to qualify for Social Security benefits. His employment background is also never mentioned, so viewers can only speculate where he gets his money.

He’s later shown with his widowed mother in her home. (He obviously doesn’t come from a wealthy family.) Doescher’s mother, whose first name is not shown in the movie, says he was the middle child of her three children. She describes him as someone who was a good and responsible child, but sometimes eccentric, with a tendency to do “everything in extremes.” Doescher’s mother also mentions that her husband, a veteran of World War II, came home “emotionally damaged” from the war, and this trauma made Doescher become a pacifist.

The production notes for “Sweetheart Deal” mention that Doescher “had been trained as a medic for [the war in] Vietnam before opting out as a conscientious objector,” but it’s not mentioned in the documentary. This medical training explains why Doescher feels comfortable attending to the sex workers when they’re going through drug withdrawals. He gives them certain prescription medication to make the withdrawals easier for them, with no explanation for where he gets this medication.

Doescher is presented as one of the few people whom these women could trust in their lives as sex workers. In the beginning of the documentary, Sara comments about her close relationship with Doescher: “That’s one in a million. You don’t find that [all the time]. All these people out here, they’re fucking sharks.”

Although Sara expresses a lot of cynicism about being able to find a true friend, she has Rae as a best friend whom she can completely trust. Sara and Tammy are also close, but they have an on-again/off-again relationship. Later in the movie, Sara and Krista seem to become friends too. Sara is also friendly with Kristine. In a scene where Kristine and Sara shoot up heroin together, Sara gives some of her heroin stash to Kristine, who is feeling “dopesick.”

When the women visit Doescher, he’s ready to comfort them with free food (which he often cooks himself), compliments and a place where they can sleep for as long as they want. He’s also shown helping them when they go through drug-related withdrawals/sickness or recovering from violent customers. He’s their confidant and counselor who’s willing to listen to all of their problems.

Doescher also presents himself as being a protector who’s ready and willing to seek justice for his sex worker friends who’ve been violated. In the beginning of the documentary, Krista/Amy has survived a brutal rape and other assaults from a customer. She literally had to escape from the customer’s home and genuinely feared that he was going to kill her. Krista/Amy tells Doescher all the details, and they secretly drive back to the customer’s home to get his address and his car’s license plate number.

With Krista/Amy’s permission, Doescher is then seen making a phone call to report this information to law enforcement in Seattle. It turns out that this customer has been under suspicion of being a serial rapist of women sex workers in the area. Doescher says he wants to do whatever he can to help bring this alleged criminal to justice.

But some cracks begin to show in Doescher’s “hero” persona. It starts with a scene where Seattle Times reporter Christine Clarridge interviews Doescher in his home to talk to him about the case and how he knows the sex workers of Aurora Avenue. After warmly greeting her, Doescher looks at her flirtatiously and says, “I can see why you have a stalker. Oh my goodness. Now, you’re going to have two [stalkers].” It’s a very creepy thing to say to anyone as a compliment.

During the interview, when Clarridge asks Doescher if he’s sexually involved with the prostitutes who get food and shelter from him, he reveals: “I have relationships with most of these girls, but I help them a lot. And if they’re ever in trouble, they can come to me, and they can count on me. And if they ever need me, they can spend the night.”

As soon as Doescher admits that he has a “friends with benefits” situation with the sex workers, it should immediately make viewers sense that something isn’t right about Doescher, who keeps calling these sex workers “girls” instead of “women.” When he touches them or calls them terms of endearment, such as “sweetheart,” it’s with a weird tone that seems as if he wants to be like their father and their lover. And although he doesn’t judge them harshly for their lifestyles, he doesn’t seem to put a lot of effort into trying to help them get clean, sober and on the path to having a healthy life.

There are some other things that Doescher says that are inconsistent with how he looks and what he does. Doescher claims that even though he’s never done drugs in his life, and he vehemently states that he will never do drugs, he has empathy with people who have addiction problems. However, Doescher’s unhealthy physical appearance indicates that he has addiction issues too: He has a “drinker’s nose,” with all the signs of rhinophyma (such as damaged-looking blood vessels on a bulbous-looking nose) that are associated with alcoholism.

The movie has a very telling scene where Doescher spends time with Tammy on her birthday. In his home, he gives her a birthday card. Tammy says he’s the only person in her life who remembered her birthday by giving her a card that day. Doescher then takes Tammy to a restaurant to celebrate her birthday.

At the restaurant, Doescher kisses Tammy like they’re on a romantic date. Tammy is drinking alcohol, and he tells her that he wants her to get drunk so that she can spend the night at his place. Doescher also mentions that he has Klonopin pills to sell to Tammy, although later he seems slightly annoyed with himself and with Tammy that they talked about this drug deal on camera.

The documentary later reveals there’s somewhat of a “love triangle” between Doescher, Tammy and Sara. Tammy and Sara, who both say they’re openly bisexual, were apparently lovers at some point. Multiple people in the documentary say that Sara is Doescher’s “favorite.” It’s implied that out of all the sex workers he’s involved with, Sara is the one he “loves” in a way that goes beyond a “friends with benefits” relationship.

At one point in the movie, Sara says of Doescher: “I love him and I hate him at the same time. He’s a slimy old man, but I know what to expect from him. He doesn’t lie about it or try to hide it.” Tammy also mentions that Doescher has a sleazy side to him. Kristine and Krista seem to be a lot more trusting of Doescher.

Sara tries to quit drugs at Doescher’s place, but after two weeks of staying there, she abruptly leaves without telling him where she went. Doescher is upset that Sara has “disappeared,” but he seems fairly sure that he’ll see her again. It’s later revealed that Sara asked Tammy to help her leave, and Sara had to do it in secret because she knew that Doescher would be very jealous and upset if he knew Tammy was involved in helping her leave. Doescher starts to look less like a caring friend and more like a possessive manipulator.

There are some twists to the story that aren’t too surprising, considering all the signs foreshadowing certain things that end up happening. It doesn’t make the turn of events any less disturbing. And a lot of viewers will be shocked. “Sweetheart Deal” is not only an unforgettable chronicle of damaged lives, but it’s also a journey that leaves room for healing. The filmmakers have told this story of these women with compassion and without passing judgment, while truthfully showing that not everyone in life gets a happy ending.

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