I’ve been wanting to start up a column on documentary classics for a while now but couldn’t decide what film to start with. Yesterday I watched Steve James’ “Stevie” for the first time, and — oh yeah — this is the one. Less than ten years old, it might seem too new a film to be considered a “classic.” Docs tend to age a lot quicker than fiction films, though, with only a few years needed to determine if they’re permanent must-see works or momentary imperatives that quickly become outdated. A more obvious and easy choice would be James’ “Hoop Dreams,” and certainly it deserves a discussion here in the future. However, I partly wish to recommend lesser known films requiring more attention, either than what they received to begin with or than they have had since.
As we await the release of James’ latest nonfiction masterpiece, “The Interrupters” (out in NYC July 29), as well as what is being called a “mini festival” retrospective of some of the filmmaker’s work (including this film, which screens at the IFC Center tonight as part of the Stranger Than Fiction series), it’s a great time to get acquainted with an undervalued documentarian and what’s undoubtedly his most narratively and ethically complex achievement. In fact, “Stevie” is one of the most narratively and ethically complex docs ever. It’s incredibly rich and challenging and emotionally difficult. In short, it’s absolutely brilliant.
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“Stevie” presents a first-person story, in which James returns to Southern Illinois to reconnect with the young man he mentored ten years earlier as a Big Brother. Mostly the film is about this eponymous young man, an ex-foster child dealing with a complicated family dynamic and sudden yet unsurprising criminal charges. On the surface it appears to be your usual look at poor white eccentrics and miscreants, typical popular subjects for documentary cinema worldwide. But it’s a biography inside of an autobiography and in the end it’s really James’ struggle we’re dealing with. At times it feels so personal, particularly on moral and visceral levels, that it’s amazing he was able to compile the doc with a clear head. I presume co-editor William Haugse (with whom James shares an earlier editing Oscar nomination) must have been an enormous help at the steering wheel of this one.
In part I see the film as an unintentional condemning of mentoring organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, but for that I also have to see equal issue with foster care and, well, a lot of documentary filmmaking. James had personally recommended his own film to me after a discussion we had about documentarians’ relationships with their subjects after the camera is turned off. “Stevie” deals in this issue somewhat metaphorically because the reunion between Steve and Stevie is similar to what a reunion between filmmaker and film subject is like. As is another sequence in the doc where Stevie reconnects with his first and favorite foster parents after fifteen years out of touch. What is the responsibility of all these people to the person they once completely focused on, and is it more detrimental than beneficial to the “Little Brothers,” the foster kids and the film subjects, enough that these relationships are not even worth having to begin with?
For raising such a question, “Stevie” easily reminded me of Nick Broomfield’s “Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer,” which came out shortly after “Stevie” and more literally deals with a filmmaker revisiting a prior subject ten years later (the first film was “Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer”) and experiencing all kinds of inner turmoil as a result. Stylistically, however, the films aren’t that similar, as James doesn’t bring out his ethical dilemmas to the forefront of his film’s narrative too often. We’re able to mostly focus on Stevie’s story while contemplating how it’s affecting James in the back of our heads, occasionally reminded through the filmmaker’s voice-over and appearances onscreen just how significant his own involvement with this story is, and vice versa.
This is also stylistically dissimilar to the rest of James’ films, at least those I’ve seen. I don’t think he’s done anything this autobiographical, before or since, and it has a kind of Ross McElwee-ish tone at times. Primarily because of the voice-over and first-person approach, but also because like “Sherman’s March” (like “Hoop Dreams” a necessary but obvious documentary classic to look at later) it begins as one thing and then finds itself in another, larger story. “Stevie” was always meant to be a personal project about the boy James mentored, but it was initially intended as a short, and James had no idea of the legal and emotional road ahead given that Stevie’s crime occurred after a preliminary documented reunion. Other docs it falls in line with include Kim Reed’s “Prodigal Sons,” about the filmmaker’s return home to her estranged family following her own gender reassignment procedure, and the non-autobiographical family portrait of Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher’s “October Country.” Once you’ve seen this, see those (or the other way around).
In an interview with the BBC from 2003, James admitted that he thought of abandoning the film at least on one occasion. I’m glad he didn’t, and he proves through its completion that a film like this can work and is important when made by a genuine, respectful and sensitive documentarian such as himself. I tend to expect and prefer more distanced perspectives, but James is doing much to change my mind about documentaries lately (“The Interrupters” has done a rare thing in making me feel strongly for a cause, for instance). In that BBC interview he also said if he ever quit making docs it’d be because of the personal struggle he had with “Stevie.” Once you’ve seen “The Interrupters,” you’ll be glad “Stevie” didn’t make him stop — at least not yet. Based on our recent talk it’s clearly still on his mind almost a decade later. I have a feeling it will stick with me for many years, too, although not nearly as heavily.
Those of you who are in NYC and can manage on short notice to get to the IFC Center tonight really should make an effort. James will be there for a discussion afterward, and that is sure to be a big deal for both him and the audience. I can’t make it to the film but there is no way I’m going to miss the Q&A. Hopefully I see some of you there. For now, if anyone’s seen it before and wants to get the talk started earlier, drop a comment down below.