STEVIE

Directed by Steve James

Distributed by Lions Gate Films

***


What responsibility do documentarians have towards their subjects? Should they strive  for - or pretend to - objectivity (aka cinema vérité ) or frankly acknowledge the way they've shaped the reality they're filming. The former was the hip option in the 60s, but the latter has now taken its place. While I doubt James originally intended to take on this theme as part of his subject matter, STEVIE is unimaginable without this reflexivity. Starting with his visit to rural Illinois to see Stevie Fielding, whom he had mentored as a Big Brother when Stevie was a child, it raises a tornado of questions about a filmmaker's responsibility to his or her subjects, as well as any person's responsibility to someone they've tried to help.

Stevie was rejected by his mother (who never wanted a child in the first place), never knew his father and dumped on his step-grandmother early in life. Running him through foster and group homes, the state of Illinois eventually exhausted all its options for helping him. (His first foster parents, whom he visits late in the film, seem almost saintly in their patience and reluctance to judge him, but even they eventually found him  too much  to handle.) During this period, he was raped. After a stay in a mental hospital, he came back to his  hometown. At the time James began filming, he had been in and out of jail on a variety of charges; soon afterwards, he was charged with molesting an 8-year-old girl. Confessing to the crime before being read his Miranda rights and rejecting a guilty plea that would keep him out of jail, he - and James - spend 2 years waiting for the case to go to  trail. 

To get personal, STEVIE hit home because of a falling out I had with a friend several years ago. When he turned into a near-psychotic stalker after his girlfriend, who was an acquaintance, left him, I stopped speaking to him. Did I make the right decision? Should I have confronted him more directly? Tried to get the number of a good shrink? I don't know, but STEVIE unexpectedly made me feel like a coward for thinking I had the answer to these questions. James is more forgiving than I was, and amazingly willing to lend a hand. Young Stevie obviously left a permanent mark on him. During the wait for Stevie's case to come to trial, not everyone shies away from him. His fianceé Tanya's ambivalence is particularly touching: she thinks he's guilty but doesn't love him any less for it. A member of the Aryan Brotherhood, who says he would kill anyone who molested his daughter, offers to help Stevie in jail.

If James helps him, that is. Implicitly, he's also the "Stevie" of the title. James shows himself making difficult choices, like trying to decide whether to give Stevie $100 for bail money. (He wants to do it, but his wife Judy, who counsels victims of sexual abuse, says no.) He's not  the kind of guilty liberal who, settles on facile explanations of arduous social situations and sets blame on the government. There's a number of easy "explanations" for Stevie's behavior. His family failed him. So did several incarnations of "the system." None of these reasons adds up to a full picture. After all, Wendy, the mother of his victim, survived an abusive background and consciously chose to avoid repeating it in her own behavior. Stevie never seems self-aware enough to make such a decision. To the film's credit, he comes off as a real, idiosyncratic person: someone other than the sum of his crimes. James' refusal to cut Stevie out of his life feels like a brave choice rather than an unwillingness to pass moral judgment. 

Even so, STEVIE wouldn't be much more than a minor character study if its subject weren't so deeply troubled. James lucked out in finding such a fucked-up man. If not for the molestation charges (which come quite early in a 140-minute film), he probably would never have made a feature about Stevie. As such, there's an exploitative tinge to STEVIE, even though James tries to foreground his misgivings and missteps. I cringed at the moment when James takes Stevie, Tanya and a wheelchair-bound friend to a Chicago disco, watches Stevie get drunk and blames himself - and his desire to create an interesting scene - for letting Stevie do so, as if he should - or could - control a grown man's behavior. (For the most part, he does avoid such condescension). These contradictions are an unavoidable part of James' project, but one wishes that his self-examination dug a little deeper. All the same, STEVIE is an excellent lesson in putting a guilty conscience to productive use.