Guilt plays a strange role in life at times. Although it creates an uneasy tension, this generally negative force can result in positives. Such is the case with Stevie, the most recent documentary project from filmmaker Steve James, who previously brought us Prefontaine and the remarkable Hoop Dreams. While attending Southern Illinois University James drove an hour once a week to Pomona to serve as a Big Brother to troubled 11-year old Stevie Fielding, a mildly retarded boy who had lived in a series of foster homes. Little did James think that this part time relationship would develop roots when he graduated in 1985 and headed to Chicago to begin his film career.
But film projects end, and filmmakers seek new ones. Ten years later, James returned to rural Jackson County with camera in tow, feeling a duty to check on Stevie while thinking this could develop into a film. A simple reunion develops into a much longer and intense emotional rollercoaster since Stevie remains a disaster ready to happen. Growing up as a pawn piece contested by his step-grandmother and so called mother and periodically shuffled off to every foster home in Jackson County, the sexually and physically abused Stevie inevitably fulfills James' worst fears, and then ups the ante. Had James attempted a 60 Minutes style expose on the failure of the Foster Care Program or the Big Brother Program, the film would come off as a shallow exercise in futility. Although his own guilt over abandoning Stevie compels him to take on the project, James' film explores all facets of the failed "village" without offering simplistic solutions.
Understanding what makes Stevie tick becomes the goal, and this is no easy task. After a lifetime series of repeated petty theft incidents to support his beer drinking and marijuana smoking habits, Stevie is accused of molesting an eight-year old girl, testing the limits of love and acceptance. With his impenetrable exterior, stubbornness, and fits of anger, Stevie appears to be an unreachable emotional train wreck—a project that any normal person would feel justified abandoning. However, Stevie's dysfunctional family remains unpredictable, and some continue to provide support. Most significantly, Stevie's resilient fiancee, Tonya, provides the necessary tonic to keep Stevie afloat and keep the film from veering into Stevie's self-perpetuating vortex of horrendous choices. Mentally challenged herself, Tonya can't explain why she stands by her man: "I don't know what it is about Stevie that I love; I just love him."
Anyone who's ever dealt with emotionally disturbed students can cite frustrating cases that at times filled them with great hope, only to see it vanish in an instant. Steve James provides live footage of the process by including himself as an integral character—no other choice is possible since much of the dynamics revolve around his reappearance into Stevie's life and the fact that he's committed to the film project.
No professional psychologist himself, James' wife obviously provides backup support, and he awkwardly applies therapeutic techniques—often after the fact. For example, one scene shows a basic angry "silent war" waged between James and his "Little Brother" in the car, as the filmmaker voices over the situation. Immediately after cut to a backyard scene (perhaps even staged on a different day) where James uses active listening to reflect how Stevie must feel angry with him. Such moments aren't too frequent to make the entire film play falsely, but less essential scenes like this could have been excised from the 144-minute film painlessly.
An expert dysfunctional family battler, understanding their rules but incapable of breaking out, Stevie stubbornly insists on rolling the dice instead of accepting therapy, leading to frustrations for all that care about him. James includes two classic examples of dysfunctional family relationships just before Stevie's final hearing—the grandmother can only talk about her pet dog and his mother gloats about her new granddaughter at the McDonalds while Stevie silently munches his burger. About to head to prison, no one in the family finds the courage to talk with him or even acknowledge his presence directly—and this doesn't come across as staged. The family has performed this exercise for years!
A poignant juxtaposition demonstrating Stevie's enduring pattern occurs when the filmmaker shows isolated young Stevie dressed in a Cheshire Cat costume along with a disturbed "adult" Stevie climbing a tree to escape human contact. In contrast, are the most joyful scenes with Stevie's favorite foster parents, whose natural warm-heartedness transforms the man-child back to happier days for a few minutes. They muse what might have been if they hadn't been "human" and found that they had to leave the Foster Parent Program, but can anyone be expected to survive such a system for long?
With Michael Moore's notoriety, more documentary filmmakers will be taken to task to justify self-inclusion and editing choices, but James doesn't abuse this here. His participation with the family is as natural as can be expected under the circumstances. To remain truthful, this is James' only reasonable choice, and he never hides the fact that he's filming—the family often alludes to the cameras, and Stevie adds this dynamic to his repertoire of manipulative survival tactics by hinting that he may commit suicide and abusing the free drink privileges afforded the film crew at one venue. So in one sense, the filmmaker does influence the subject matter, and lives are changed. Just not the life that Steve James intended to change when he undertook the project.
And that makes all the difference. James set the wheels in motion when he decided that his former Little Brother would make good documentary film material, yet he retains little control over the course of events. As frustrating as it is for him to witness Stevie's self-destructive habits, the resulting film inadvertently chronicles how the entire system is insufficient when it comes to this individual. People have to want to change before they can, and James captures this inadvertently on film as events unfold. Not the easiest film to watch, Stevie emotionally drains while steadfastly refusing to provide easy solutions for our dysfunctional health care system. As the filmmaker states, "This film will be an honest film, as honest as I can make it. It's not just an apology for Stephen."