Stevie: Good Intentions Can't Save the Man

But a good documentary can tell his story.

There's nothing more violent than the scene of a liberal beating himself up. And in his powerfully absorbing new documentary Stevie (which opens Friday, April 11 at the Harvard Exit), Hoop Dreams director Steve James finds plenty of cause to berate himself. Like many liberals, however, he's blaming the wrong guy—or the wrong Steve, since his film mainly follows Stephen Dale Fielding (a.k.a. "Stevie"), the Southern Illinois yokel he once mentored in a Big Brother program in the mid-'80s. As James explains in voice-over, he moved to Chicago and lost touch with Stevie after 1985, then returned to visit Pomona, Ill., a decade later. There, he uneasily discovers what is immediately obvious to the viewer: Once a cute, shy kid with a welcoming, snaggletoothed smile, Stevie has become a huge fuckup. He's every white-trash, trailer-park stereotype that ever took to tossing chairs on The Jenny Jones Show. Truculent, uneducated, tattooed, fond of heavy metal and snakes, often drunk or stoned, he's mad at everyone—but most of all his mother, Bernice, who bore him out of wedlock, then later married and gave him to her new stepparents to raise. Living on disability checks, the belligerent 24-year-old is a mess, a liberal's pet cause gone horribly, horribly wrong. No wonder James feels guilty. Yet the amazing thing about this profoundly compassionate, personal documentary is how Stevie, no matter how lost, is never quite a lost cause (even though he's in jail by the time of James' 1997 follow-up visit). You can see why James returns to his subject when it'd be easier to turn his back on the squalor and shame. THE OTHER PLAYERS in this drama— besides the director, who acts as a kind of Stage Manager in a wildly dsyfunctional Our Town—are Stevie's surrogate grandmother, Verna; his half-sister, Brenda; and his mildly retarded girlfriend, Tonya. With Bernice, this bickering mob stands in opposition to James' own contented clan (three kids and a social-worker wife, Judy); clearly, it seems, he's got everything Stevie has not—which only lends to his guilt in documenting Stevie's life. Of their friendship, James frets, "Here I was repaying him by putting his tortured life on display." True enough. But there's a value in that candid display (by turns wrenching, squirm-inducing, and funny), one that goes beyond impartiality or ingratitude. He's being loyal to his story, his art, documentary film. (James made Stevie with his same Hoop Dreams collaborators, Adam Singer and Gordon Quinn.) Who's to blame for Stevie's behavior? It's hard to imagine how James' staying behind as a Big Brother would've made any difference to the troubled teen. Although James flubs a bit on the chronology of his discoveries and commentary (what did the director know and when did he know it?), it emerges how Stevie has been made into a victimizer at least partly by his own victimization. Bouncing between reform schools and foster families, Stevie is beaten and raped as a child. James traces some of the institutions and families that harbored (and abused) Stevie during childhood and adolescence. You get the picture of the classic shrimpy Ritalin kid, the one who's always picked on—not bright, not strong, not able to control his impulses. James' wife, who counsels sex offenders for a living, observes: "The system always fails in that kind of situation." Yet there are tantalizing glimpses of happier outcomes when, in 1999 while Stevie waits through trial and appeal, James takes him and Tonya on a driving tour of his past. They spend an afternoon with a kindly religious couple—true Christians, in the best sense of the word—who briefly served as Stevie's foster parents. In their company, Stevie is once more a child, skipping rocks and playing with frogs, yet a child still capable of terrible things. WHILE NO tragedy (Stevie doesn't start with enough potential for that), there's something about this story that's quintessentially and tragically American—a fucked-up family that still has a remarkable capacity to love and forgive. James focuses on a flyover America—like the inner-city Chicago of Hoop Dreams—that no one wants to see unless it's reduced to easy clich鳠like on COPS. In truth, Stevie is a bit like COPS, with the incident and arrest left out but all the unseen back story expanded (perhaps too much; James does meander a bit in his desire to be fair to all parties). It's a detective movie, too: How did this man come to be this man? How did he come to do what he did? James is the sympathetic detective who gets his culprit but wants to spare him the gallows. In James' admirable refusal to look away—or walk away—from the good and bad in this flyover gothic, I was reminded of another Midwestern liberal documentary filmmaker: Michael Moore, James' antithesis in his ornery, finger-pointing polemics. Put a gun in Stevie's hands and he could be another half-wit in Bowling for Columbine, with Moore inviting us to snicker in condescension. (And Moore surely would've made more of the Aryan Brotherhood guy wearing a Les Miz T-shirt.) Yet Moore isn't all mean; he has his human side, just as James the tortured liberal must finally concede that Stevie belongs in legal custody. Being fair doesn't mean being nonjudgmental, which this excellent documentary makes painfully clear.

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