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Stevie   B+

Lions Gate Films

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Steve James
Cast: Steve James, Stephen Fielding, Tonya Gregory, Bernice Hagler, Verna Hagler, Brenda Hickam, Doug Hickam, Judy James.

Review by Eric Beltmann

Can a film be described as must viewing even when it isn't very good? I think so, because we go to the movies for many reasons, and sometimes those reasons can be satisfied even through a filmmaker's mistakes and miscalculations. Movies can spring out of unexpected places, and carry unexpected significance -- the pieces of a mess can be marshaled into something new, personal, and meaningful, if we're willing to confront that possibility.

I think Stevie, the new documentary by Steve James, is a real mess, a liberal guilt movie that inadvertently engages in a rather contemptible form of navel gazing. In the mid-80s James served as a Big Brother to Stevie Fielding, a discarded, abused, and volatile 11-year-old. (We learn that his mother beat him and then sent him next door to live with his grandmother; in school he was literally walled off from the rest of his classmates.) James confesses he feels shame for "abandoning" Stevie in 1985 to pursue a filmmaking career, but his efforts to reconnect 10 years later seem driven more by a need to assuage his own guilt than by a desire to revive an old friendship. Most of the time, James doesn't know what to say to the boorish, childlike Stevie, so awkward small talk fills the down time, and James -- who is an astonishingly uncharismatic screen presence -- forces a lot of bored smiles at Stevie's jokes. As James broods his way through Stevie, wearing his need for atonement as if it were a hair shirt scratching away at his soul, we sense obligation, not pleasure or love.

For long stretches, this morose sinner seems to be pleading with Stevie, pleading with us, pleading with himself. Frankly, I became fed up. What does this guy want? Absolution? Understanding? Financing? Such misguided expiation completely distorts the issues -- the failings of our social systems, the ways families can be torn apart -- that are raised by the picture. Nevertheless, my severe reservations didn't prevent me from becoming completely absorbed by Stevie and its underlying implications regarding a filmmaker's motivations, methods, and responsibilities.

Why would James bring a film crew, and therefore audiences, into Stevie's home and life? The nature-versus-nurture debate largely informs Stevie, which aims to probe the genetic and social forces that have shaped the last decade of Stevie's existence, a period in which he assembled an imposing criminal record. That's an admirable, complicated goal, but while the movie looks like a documentary with a social and political vision, it wrinkles, kaleidoscopically, into something else. My eyebrow first lifted during the initial reunion between Stevie and his former advocate. Now 24 and living in Pomona, a rural hamlet in southern Illinois, Stevie welcomes James back into his life. Yet the camera's presence at this thorny, discomfited meeting seems more than pushy, especially since Stevie warily eyes the device, refusing to let down his guard. James' willful intrusion begs the question: Is he taking advantage of his long-ago relationship with this deprived creature, merely because it produces remarkable footage? When actual human beings are involved, does analysis ever cross over into exploitation?

Such thoughts are partially reinforced after James ditches Stevie a second time, leaving Pomona for two more years. The movie doesn't dwell on this sabbatical, but the press notes mention that James left to work on another film project. (I presume the project was James' fiction feature debut Prefontaine, a colorless biopic that employs mock-doc interviews that are, ironically, the least convincing portions of the picture.) I don't know why Stevie alludes to this absence without fully explaining it, but the omission gives us insight into how documentarians sometimes hedge their bets, calculate their moves, and wait for stories to develop.

When James finally returns to Pomona in 1997, he discovers that during the interim Stevie had been accused of molesting his 8-year-old niece. Suddenly Stevie morphs into a different kind of investigation, one that seeks to understand the ramifications of such an awful, perilous criminal charge. How does it affect Stevie's psychology? How does it disrupt family dynamics? How does it alter the "future" and its meanings? The ripest question, though, is whether James would have stayed in Pomona this time if the "story" hadn't taken such a sensational, "cinematic" turn. In other words, is his main interest in Stevie as a caring Big Brother, or as an opportunistic journalist? Based on the evidence in Stevie, it's difficult to tell, which helps explain in some measure why I was skeptical of the film but also why I was captivated by it.

To his credit, James openly acknowledges this conflict of motives: "I kept thinking, Stevie had wanted to be in this film mostly to spend time with me again, and here I was, repaying him by putting his tortured life on display." Yet did his awareness compel James to reconsider whether he should forge ahead? The way Stevie uses his sad, wide, searching eyes to stare down James and the camera -- and by extension us -- suggests fear and bewilderment, as if he's confounded about why the world judges rather than loves him. It's tough to shake the feeling that we're being given access to a man uncertain about sharing himself with audiences. Has James confused Stevie's need for attention with consent? And if so, is that a form of abuse? Or is it symbiosis -- a way for both Stevie's and James' wishes to be fulfilled?

Stevie tells James that the police "tricked" him, and with his low IQ, his Clark Kent glasses patched up with duct tape, and his Harley cap adorned with a "Born to Party" button, it's easy to envision officers coercing this powerless, backwoods scraggler into a confession. If we sense sympathy, regret, or compassion for Stevie, does that mean that James has ennobled an alleged child molester, and if so, is that tolerable? Rather than remain neutral, James offers to be a character witness for Stevie, saying, "I'm in your corner." His proposal sounds generous, but should a documentarian pick corners? And if James is in Stevie's, doesn't that mean he's in the corner opposite the victim, actively rooting against her? Is it possible to be in both corners simultaneously?

At first I expected Stevie to tread the same path as Brother's Keeper, which showed how the law can bulldoze the uneducated. Instead, James refuses to romanticize Stevie as a victim. Both he and his wife presume Stevie's guilt, and are appalled at his proud, remorseless aggression. (Speaking about his sister, Stevie admits, "We have our differences. I was going to knock her in the head one day out here besides the garage because she called me retarded. I was gonna knock her in the head with a claw hammer." There's no shame in his words; his tone asks surely you understand?) In fact, when asked to help post bail money, James admits, "I don't necessarily think the best thing for him is to beat this thing." Then the film cuts to Stevie near tears, reacting to this emotional betrayal. We're asked to simultaneously recognize both Stevie's humanity and his need for rehabilitation, which introduces all sorts of new questions.

To me, the muddled mix of empathy and tough love is what makes Stevie an important work, because the confusion helps illustrate how difficult it is for a filmmaker to remain truly objective, especially when he is emotionally linked to his subject matter. More significantly, it throws into question the value of being impartial. Consider these scenarios: At one point, James facilitates a reunion between Stevie and his former, beloved foster parents. Should we quibble with this gift to Stevie? If not, then perhaps it is equally acceptable for James to sponsor a big-city sojourn for Stevie and his fiancée. But is it okay for him to allow Stevie to get plastered at a Chicago nightclub -- especially when he was given free liquor only because James' cameras accompanied him? Did James have an obligation to curb that destructive behavior, since he was responsible for the conditions that made it possible?

Most tellingly, James attempts to convince Stevie and his lawyer to pursue a plea bargain, fully ingratiating himself into the legal proceedings unfolding before us. Stevie angrily responds, "This ain't your life that we're talkin' about. This is mine, man." The larger questions here, of course, are similar to what Wexler asked in Medium Cool: Does a filmmaker have a right -- or duty -- to interfere with what he documents, especially when he perceives injustice? What happens when strict objectivity requires a filmmaker to abandon his ethics, or when his ethics require him to abandon objectivity? In the case of Stevie, James is frequently forced to make decisions that will either violate his objectivity, violate his ethics, or violate his friendship with Stevie. Things get sticky indeed.

The reasons for seeing Stevie are sticky, too. I'm unconvinced that James is successful in "exposing" Stevie to us, and my suspicions of his motives and methods continued through to the end. In the final sequence, James prepares to bring a book to Stevie, but is the delivery an affectionate gesture or a contrivance that lends a tidy conclusion to this untidy movie? Still, my uncertainty helps reveal why Stevie ought to be seen. If a film's impact can be measured in terms of how it provokes us, does it matter that this one fails to resolve the questions it raises? It deserves high marks simply for giving me an opportunity to revisit my own feelings about the implications of documentary filmmaking. My interest in Stevie may lie beyond its intended goals, but that certainly hasn't made the experience any less powerful.

Review published 09.16.2003.

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