TORONTO REVIEW: An Anguished Filmmaker Confronts His Subject, and Himself, in "Stevie"
by Peter Brunette
(indieWIRE: 09.12.02) -- Why is it that the best films at every festival -- and the ones least-watched -- are the documentaries? They're the best because real reality is always so excitingly unpredictable. They're the least watched because we crave the lies of art to make sense of this always fascinating but inchoate and sometimes threatening reality that surrounds us. In any case, one of our master documentarians, Steve James, has demonstrated that he is at the top of his game with his brilliant and powerful new offering, "Stevie." Following "Hoop Dreams," a splendid film that singlehandedly brought mainstream attention to the neglected documentary form, the solidly competent dramatic feature, "Prefontaine" (tellingly, itself based on a true story), as well as a few well-received cable movies, James' new film is by turns moving and thoughtful, and, always deeply respectful of the complexities of the warped lives it lays bare.
What's perhaps most interesting about the film is that James is onscreen, and profoundly enmeshed in the events his film portrays, from beginning to end. While enrolled in film school at Southern Illinois University in the mid-'80s, he became a Big Brother to a troubled and abused 11-year-old named Stevie Fielding. James vowed not to lose contact with him when James moved to Chicago to begin his film career in 1985, but despite the best of intentions, he did. Some 10 years later, James was once again in the area promoting "Hoop Dreams" and stopped by to see Stevie, now in his early 20s, and asked if he could make a documentary about him. Stevie agreed, but James found a much more morally and legally complicated situation than he expected. Sometime during the first two years after his initial reconnection with Stevie, the severely dysfunctional young man was accused of molesting an eight-year girl. The film revolves around this event and its consequences.
James is the polar opposite of a reticent documentary filmmaker like Frederick Wiseman, who prefers to let his well-chosen footage speak for itself, as James doesn't hesitate to guide us with his own voiceover narration. In this film, the technique is always used to tell us what James is thinking, rather than what we should be thinking. And James has plenty on his mind. Since it looks all but certain that Stevie is actually guilty of the heinous crime, to what extent should James defend him and try to save him for rehabilitation rather than a prison sentence? James himself is the father of three young children, and movingly anguishes over these decisions. By far the most artistically and ethically powerful moments in the film come when James allows the viewer to witness his own confusion, fear, and frequent awkwardness in the face of the complexities of human life. This incredible honesty also goes a long way to mitigate what might otherwise have become a megalomaniacal insistence on his own response to events.
The characters that James introduces are mind-boggling. There's Stevie himself, who's mean and impulsive, yet somehow likeable at the same time. There's his girlfriend Tonya, who at first appears to be retarded, yet turns out to be the deepest thinker and most articulate voice of the lot. There's Stevie's natural mother, Bernice, who regularly beat him as a child before abandoning him to the care of his step grandmother Verna, who lived just a few doors down the road. There's Brenda, his stepsister, who has her own problems yet stands in as a surrogate parent for Stevie while harboring complicated mixed feelings toward him. Minor characters such as a member of the Aryan Nation, who in one chilling scene visibly frightens Steve James, are unforgettable. And as an index of the complexity of life (and this film), the mother of the little girl Stevie is accused of molesting who offers the most violent condemnation of the offender early in the film and then, in a second appearance, seems to be the most understanding toward him.
The film is, purposely, anything but heart-warming and does not build to a grand, cathartic climax in which everyone, including the viewer, comes to feel better about himself. Instead, the contradictions of human life are accepted and simply portrayed with all possible care and honesty. Class and economic issues are never far from the surface, but the viewer is allowed to understand them almost intuitively rather than be hammered over the head with glib liberal formulas. The film also raises powerful social questions about how sex offenders should be treated, especially since their names and faces are posted all over the web and elsewhere, while murderers go unrecognized. Should we simply lock them up and throw away the key? If we opt for rehabilitation and therapy, what's to prevent them from victimizing other children?
The most powerful feeling that the viewer is left with is a sense of the ultimate indestructibility of family ties, no matter how screwed-up the family. Despite his obvious hatred for his mother and all that she has done to him, Stevie still seeks her out, just as she continues to visit him in prison without quite knowing why she does. To some extent, it's clearly these same family ties that have led Steve James to make this outstanding film.