Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Stevie baby

It has been a little while since I posted. Mostly that is because I went to Louisville for New Years, but also I have been playing Motherload, which is probably the best flash game since Insaniqarium.

Continuing my long history of only catching things well after they are hip, I finally got around to watching Stevie. I don't watch a lot of documentaries, but wrote that they loved it and so I pushed some buttons on netflix and like magic it came. How rarely is so little effort so richly rewarded.

One of the most popular modes of criticism today is to find a contextual theme to generalize the movie. V for Vendetta is about the war on terror and X-Men: The Last Stand is about the gay gene. Stevie defies such easy packaging, sure it is about things, but to say that it is about the failures of society that ultimately produce criminals is to ignore most of the movie. As meta-fiction that could function simply as a discussion of the responsibilities of documentarians to their subjects. Or it could be a demonstration of personal responsibility and empathy, even for those who have done very bad things. It is far more than that, and even at more than 2 hour long it delivered the goods so often that I was left reeling.

Stevie manages to get you to empathize someone who has done something loathsome and then continually demonstrates that behavior was not an aberration. The basic premise is that documentarian Steve James (director of one the best sports movie ever, Hoop Dreams) goes back to rural Southern Illinois after 11 years to visit Stevie, who he mentored in the Big Brother Advocate program. However, after his initial visit he returns two years later to discover that in his absence Stevie has graduated from petty crimes to sexual molesting his 8 year old niece. When he returns, Stevie is in jail after writing out a confession, but shortly after he is released on a Miranda ruling that suppresses his confession.

At this point, James returns and follows Stevie and interviews the principle characters in his life, his abusive mother, who ultimately abandoned him; his girlfriend, who suffers from a nerve condition; his step-grandmother, who took care of him, but feuds with his mother, his unabused sister and even the sister whose daughter he molested. Stevie's life is features countless instances of neglect, both physical and sexual abuse and abandonment. His mother gave him up to the state, the good foster parents left him to the sexually predatory ones and even Steve James left and moved to Chicago to pursue a film career. Even though Stevie commits the crime, we become more and more aware that the movie is about Steve Jame, not Stevie. There were precious few people who could have made a difference in Stevie's life, and James's decision to move to Chicago clearly did not have a positive effect on Stevie. The movie is rife with conversations that discuss something general while revealing something specific, and when Stevie's one time foster mother wonders: "Sometimes I wish we didn't have to be human" it is a telling look at James's own guilt.

James is careful not to judge Stevie, but many of the other subjects do. When a member of the Aryan nation talks about how "if it was my daughter you wouldn't live to see trial" and James can not muster a coherent reason why Stevie should be protected in prison, I was forced to wonder what did Stevie deserve? James's wife, a therapist who treats sex abusers, confronts Stevie very directly. After James's own silence on the subject, it is shocking contrast to see her say: "I know you did it and you know you did it. That doesn't mean I don't care about you, that I don't want to help you."
There is no moral equivocation; she deals with people like Stevie on a daily basis and while he may be a product of his environment, he still did something unspeakable.

Stevie's girlfriend, Tonya, initially appears to be mentally handicapped and I felt that she was just a very disadvantaged person settling for what she could get. But as the movie wears on, her love and patience shines through and I understood the depths of her love for the very broken Stevie. However, even she can not hide that she suspects Stevie is guilty even in absence of DNA evidence when discussing the case with her best friend, who is even more severely disabled. Her friend was a victim herself and her discussion of the subject, with Stevie in the room, is by far the best part of the movie. "That's why I'm not married, that's why I don't have children. I love them, I want them. But I can't trust a man." Stevie looks at her, the abuser and the abused, personifying both her pain and inflicting it.

Every time Stevie makes progress, he immediately does something wrong. In a visit to Chicago (to a club I have visited no less) he gets drunk and becomes unhinged. James narrates how betrayed and angry he felt, and it reflected my own disappointment. I wanted redemption, and there are scenes of reconciliation and hope, but Stevie can not be simply cured and all we are left with is a glimmer of hope in his renewed relationship with his mother, James and the one or two other positive people in his life. I highly recommend this movie to everyone and anyone.