Directed by Steve James
Featuring Stephen Dale Fielding, Verna Hagler, Bernice Hagler, Brenda & Doug Hickam and Tonya Gregory
Not rated. 144 minutes; released by Lions Gate Films
First things first: Stevie, a documentary by Steve James, is a difficult film to watch. It chronicles in sharp, often telling detail the troubled Stevie, a man in his 20s from rural southern Illinois who has had, for pretty much all of his life, a combination of bad (or no) parenting, neglect and abuse. His psychic scars are as visible as the tattoos on his arms, and the pain he is in, as well as the pain he causes those around him, are made plain to the camera (if not always to himself).
Intertwined with Stevie's story are the purposefully self-conscious musings of the filmmaker, Steve James. James had been Stevie's Big Brother while he attended college in the area, when Stevie was a pre-teenager. Even then Stevie had seemed like an accident waiting to happen. James, by now a documentary (Hoop Dreams) and fiction (Prefontaine) filmmaker, had felt a nagging sense that he had abandoned Stevie, and wondered whether the troubled child had become a troubled adult.
In a word, he did. By the mid-1990s, when James returned, camera in hand, Stevie was already a veteran of foster homes, a mental hospital, a failed marriage, arrests and jail time. The basic sweetness of his character is soured by his threats - often delivered with a grin - to hurt or even kill those who have done him wrong. Most of his anger is focused on his mother Bernice, who gave the illegitimate Stevie to her mother-in-law Verna Hagler to raise but remained close enough to administer occasional beatings and verbal abuse. Stevie's half-sister Brenda was the favored child but she's none too fond of her mother either. Pretty much every member of the family carries around resentments and betrayals that are often decades old: James films a birthday party for Stevie that is as revealing a picture of family tensions as to be found in the most penetrating fiction film.
By the time James re-enters Stevie's life, it's gone even further downhill. He's been accused of sexually molesting an 8-year-old female cousin and faces serious jail time. Through a combination of his own stubbornness and a mistrust of virtually any kind of therapy, he rejects a plea deal that turns out to have been his best hope.
James wonders throughout the film if he is actually helping Stevie or, by the very fact of making his documentary, repeatedly betraying him. It's an interesting way to bring this issue - a big one that many documentary makers ignore - into the open. But ultimately James' pondering comes off as a way to assuage his middle-class guilt at observing, and not being part of, this trailer-park, Jerry Springer show existence.
Stevie is also a challenge to those of us who believe in people's ability to repair badly broken childhoods. Everyone in the film carries around their own childhood-inflicted torments, and they seem to only get nastier as they age. The film contains a touching scene where Stevie, now an adult, reconnects all too briefly with the stable, caring foster parents who gave him a short period of stability and love, but then had to give him up. Had Stevie had just a bit more of them and a bit less of his own family, his life could have easily taken a lighter path.
Of course, it might not have made as compelling a film if that had happened. Filmmaker Steve James seems aware of the uncomfortable role he has put himself into - chronicling what seems to be an inexorable downward slide. He wonders what he can do to help and says several times that he will "be there" for Stevie. If Stevie were a bit more self-aware or self-preserving, he might want to say "thanks but no thanks."
(This article originally appeared in Films in Review, www.filmsinreview.com)