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Friday, Feb. 10, 2006
A bitter taste of the real thing
When Steve James, the director of the acclaimed "Hoop Dreams," was still in college at Southern Illinois in the 1980s, like many an idealistic youth, he joined the Big Brother program. This uniquely American organization -- which has nothing to do with the Orwellian reality-TV series -- tries to partner troubled children with older, stable males who can serve as positive role models. James became a "big brother" to an 11-year-old named Stevie Fielding, but, like many an idealistic college student, he moved out of town after graduating, and left his responsibility behind.
Some 10 years later, after finishing "Hoop Dreams," James had a vague twinge of conscience, and decided to check up on his "little brother." Armed with a camera, but not really sure why, he returned to the nowhere town of Pomona.
The cute little 13-year-old of earlier photographs is barely recognizable: Stevie has a beer gut already, and a petty criminal record to go with his Harley T-shirt. He's an open, amiable guy, but his neuroses seep out like raw sewage. A light, "how've you been?" conversation with James soon turns dark: "She said, 'If you ever do that again, I'm gonna knock your teeth down your throat!' I said, 'If you think you're big enough, do it, because when you put me down you better kill me, cuz if you don't, I'm gonna kill you.' " That's his mother he's talking about.
Troubled, the director starts exploring Stevie's background. Stevie never learned who his real father was; when his mother, Bernice, married another man, she dumped Stevie on his grandmother, Verna, and he's been living there since -- within eyeshot of the house he was thrown out of.
James talks to Verna, his sister Brenda, his current girlfriend, Tonya, and others. What he pieces together is a tale of abuse, both psychological and physical. We begin to understand Stevie's situation, and feel for the guy, and then . . .
I won't ruin the movie for you by revealing that here, but suffice to say that Stevie is arrested for a crime that seems all too predictable, yet unforgivable. James knew he was filming an accident waiting to happen; once it does, he agonizes over how to proceed.
On the one hand, he understands the outrage felt by Stevie's relatives and those affected by his crime. He sees the confession the state prosecutor's have in their hands, and he doesn't doubt it much. But on the other hand, he abandoned Stevie once before, and guilt won't let him do it again. What small gestures can he make to ease this guy's pain and put his life back on track?
As such, "Stevie" becomes a case study in good intentions frustrated, or how it's impossible to help someone unless they decide to help themselves. Stevie's rage at his mother is so great that it poisons everything he does, and it enables him to blame all his troubles on her for messing him up.
Given the witchlike portrait painted of her by Stevie and his grandmother, it's amazing that Bernice agrees to appear in the film. Her first remarks are pretty self-incriminating, but it's interesting to see her reassess her feelings over the course of the film -- she shows an innate understanding, perhaps prompted by James, that she bears responsibility as well for Stevie's problems, and she slowly works her way back into his life. It's this sort of slow change over time that James' camera is so good at capturing.
"Stevie" also does a very good job of portraying a part of America -- the rural mid-West -- that generally doesn't make it to the big screen except as "trailer trash" stereotypes. Yes, there are trailers, and Stevie drives a dirt-bike, but things like a couple of good ol' boys from the Aryan Nation advising Stevie on prison life, or a Pentecostal minister speaking in tongues, are played straight, without a hint of smirking irony. Look closer, the director seems to be saying. Nowhere is this more true than with Tonya, Stevie's girlfriend, who appears to be slightly slow. But by film's end, she displays a sensitivity and insightfulness that is striking.
To be honest, this is one of those films that sounded, on paper, like it could be a real snooze-fest. Rarely have my first impressions been further off the mark: "Stevie" is a fascinating doc, finding an incredible story where you least expect it. The fact that the ending's not a happy one probably kept this from attracting the large audience that "Hoop Dreams" did, but anybody who appreciated James' ability to explore human nature and find natural drama in that film will not want to miss this one.