Monday, November 9, 2009
If Steve James' beautiful, wrenching documentary Hoop Dreams depicted the tragedy of urban poverty and how it could crush the hopes and dreams of the children who sought to escape it, his follow-up, Stevie, narrows the scope. Instead of examining the social constructs that perpetuate the cycle of poverty on youth, James heads back to his rural hometown of Pomona, Illinois to chart the life of one troubled young man, his actions and the motivations behind them. He uses the same extensive access that the Gates and Agee families gave to James back in the early '90s to sort out the Fielding family, a clan that makes the term "dysfunctional family" seem almost a quaint euphemism. But James also places himself in this circle, not only contemplating how a camera's presence might be affecting Stevie à la the Heisenberg Principle but evaluating his own role in Stevie's life due to a past connection.
James met Stephen Fielding when the two were paired in a Big Brother program while James was in graduate school at the Southern Illinois University. He learned that Stevie's mother didn't want him, beat him so severely that he lost the ability to speak at one point, and ultimately abandoned the toddler with the boy's step-grandmother, who raised him as her own not half a mile away from the child's real parent. Occasionally, the mother returned to take Stevie and send him to foster homes, and a psychological report suggested that the child was used as a pawn in the hateful relationship between the mother Bernice and the grandmother Verna. James himself admits that he didn't particularly want Stevie in his life, either; he expected a young, fit Little Brother who loved sports and would like to go to games and such. In other words, he wanted an actual brother, and instead he got a child who needed more help than any other underprivileged or orphaned child in the program. Upon graduation, James fled the small town for bigger and better things, returning 10 years later in 1995 as a success story with Hoop Dreams.
Out of curiosity and perhaps a lingering sense of regret, James seeks out Stevie, and what he finds is disturbing. He's 23, wearing a Harley Davidson shirt (if and when he wears a shirt at all) and sporting decaying teeth, and he's such a frequent offender the local penitentiary might have installed a revolving door for him. He looks and speaks like a stereotypical redneck, but to immediately dismiss him as a hick and a terrible person is to assume that William Gates and Arthur Agee are nothing more than stereotypical ghetto kids who just want to get into the NBA to get rich. Stevie tells James' wife Judy, a counselor specializing in sex offenders, that he married at 19 to a 34-year-old woman, but it ended after a few months because of Stevie's violence. Judy and Steve look heartbroken, but they hug Stevie goodbye and don't return for another two years, at which time we learn that Stevie is about to go to trial for molesting his 8-year-old cousin.
What makes Stevie such a striking film is its structure. Many documentaries about impoverished or unstable subjects -- including, one could argue, Hoop Dreams -- work with a structure of a detached, privileged documentarian uncomfortably examining people to work out some of life's great mysteries. Stevie thrusts its director in front of the camera, and not in the self-promoting manner we'd expect from, say, Michael Moore. James, like everyone else, believes that Stevie is guilty, and he openly admits that he doesn't want Stevie back on the streets. Yet he displays a genuine, human desire to understand just how this could happen. He doesn't care about grand social statements, he just wants to figure out this young man.
The family regards James with a mixture of nostalgic affection and distrust of the camera he now brings to capture their dysfunction. Verna, the grandmother, was the first to show Stevie any kindness, but she reveals a certain Machiavellian streak. Bernice, the abusive mother, has stopped drinking and expresses remorse for her actions, but there is a hint of self-absolution in her sudden compassion. I do not wish to say that she is simply paying lip service, as I saw in one review, but in her efforts to reconnect with the son she abandoned she spends as much time reopening the battle with Verna. Either way, Stevie is so wired to hate her that he pins everything on her, a mindset openly supported and coaxed by Verna. Verna so hates her former daughter-in-law that she even blames Bernice for the molestation, saying that Bernice shouldn't have asked Stevie to babysit in the first place. The only bright spot in the Fielding family is Stevie's sister Brenda, the closest one to normal because, as her husband tells the camera, "They didn't beat her." She tires of Stevie's stubbornness, but her love is unwavering and untainted by family politics like his relationship with Verna. (In a smaller, almost as wrenching subplot, James follows Brenda's inability to get pregnant due to an illness; "People have sex for the first time and get pregnant and don't even want 'em," she laments, "Like Mom." In one of the film's few uplifting moments, she undergoes a successful surgery and is at last able to conceive.)
Also a part of the equation are Stevie's friends, a group of white supremacists. I'm reminded of Shane Meadows' This Is England, a fictive film, though one based on the writer-director's life. In that movie, a young, alienated child found a brotherhood and a sense of belonging in a group of white supremacists he never found with anyone else. Whatever psychological issues left him emotionally, perhaps mentally, retarded made education largely an impossibility, so he spends his days fishing with these good ol' boys because he can't find a real job.
James undoubtedly has his feelings about each of these people, but spending three years following the constant heartbreak of the families of Hoop Dreams has primed him to present these people honestly and to look for the good and the bad. Yet he cannot be so detached with his own part in Stevie's upbringing. As they're driving around town, Stevie reminisces to Steve about the birthday parties his Big Brother used to throw for him, how he'd go on walks and skate with James' family, and even how he had a crush on Judy. With Stevie in the back and James up front, the director barely keeps his composure when he asks if leaving town after graduation made Stevie feel like he was abandoned again. Stevie, the confrontational lunkhead, treats the question with more severity than he does all the legal advice over his molestation trial. "Well, yeah, kind of. But you had your own thing goin', and I understand that."
Central to this puzzle, however, is Stevie's girlfriend, Tonya. A disabled, mousy girl who speaks with an impediment, she emerges as perhaps the purest representation of what James is so desperately seeking: a redeeming quality of Stevie. Tonya thinks he molested that girl like everyone else, but she sticks by him because he makes her feel special. In the film's best scene, Stevie and Tonya head to Chicago to see Steve and Judy, and they stop to see Tonya's best friend Patricia. More severely disabled than Tonya, Patricia, in a single ten-minute run, smashes whatever initial feelings of discomfort we might have at James sticking a camera in the hospital room of a bed-ridden young woman and gets straight to the core of Stevie. Her powerful speech overcomes her major speech impediment and outlines to Tonya both her excitement over her friend's happiness and a perfect summation and condemnation of Stevie's bigotry and self-absorption.
That self-absorption introduces a great deal of drag in the story, as Stevie's thorough unwillingness to learn from or even regret his mistakes makes so repugnant that he does not justify a two-and-a-half-hour film. But James is not so close to the case that he's forgotten how to craft an engaging story from his subject, and he subtly underlines just how everything went wrong for Stevie: James gives us scenes of Stevie's Aryan buddies angrily coming to terms with Stevie's crime then begrudgingly agreeing to ensure that the white supremacists in prison will protect him, only to juxtapose them with Stevie's reunion with his first and kindest foster parents. In their presence he morphs back into a adolescent, running around the yard throwing food to ducks and so reverent that he begins to list all the bad things he's done over the years, with the first and only sense of remorse he displays in the entire film. He's so ashamed to face them that he can't even bring himself to say aloud his latest charge. Moments like these, along with shots of Stevie holding his new baby niece, point to what he might have had with a slightly different path.
Stevie ends horrifically, with a conviction and a sense of uncertainty not only for Stevie but those who'd been gently reforming around him. But there is also hope, hope that Stevie might accept and regret, hope that Tonya and her blinding -- and please do not read this as an insult -- inner beauty will give him something worth reforming for, hope that the gentle hug he gives his biological mother before he goes to prison signifies the rebuilding of so many burned bridges. There's even a final touch that gives one hope that perhaps Stevie isn't just some ignorant redneck, and that he might emerge with a thirst for knowledge.