“What do you do when the village fails?” an official asks during the course of “Stevie,” in which “Hoop Dreams” helmer Steve James reconnects with a troubled young man to whom he had been a Big Brother — just in time to watch a lifetime of dysfunctional family influences send him on his way to a jail term that could have been avoided. Every bit as thorough and insightful as James’ 1994 pic on a pair of inner-city Chicago high school basketball players, “Stevie” ups the emotional ante by including the director himself as a participant; his conflicted emotions regarding his friend imbue the film with a quiet yet tortured dignity. Having just wrapped an Oscar-qualifying L.A. run and poised by U.S. distrib Lions Gate for release next spring, pic might lack the same crossover appeal as the sports-themed “Hoop Dreams,” but is nevertheless a forceful, affecting experience. Ancillary prospects are encouraging.
James first met Stephen Dale “Stevie” Fielding in the early 1980s, when, at the urging of his wife, Judy, the then-Southern Illinois U. undergrad became a Big Brother to the already hyperactive and difficult 11-year-old. Apparently unwanted by his mother Bernice (who never revealed the identity of the boy’s father), Stevie was raised in the house next door by his step-grandmother Verna.
When James graduated in 1985, he lost contact with the boy for nearly a decade, which he now regrets. Unbeknownst to the fledgling filmmaker, Stevie spent the intervening 10 years cycling through a series of orphanages and mental hospitals. He was arrested numerous times for a variety of offenses, and through it all nurtured a deep and frightening hatred of his mother. That didn’t stop the boy from moving back to Pomona, in rural Illinois — or his family from letting him.
Filming him briefly in 1995, and then picking up the project in 1997 (the gap was for James to direct biopic “Prefontaine,” his only fiction feature to date), helmer found a scruffy, balding fireplug in his mid-20s who had nicknamed himself “Snake” and exhibited an overt hostility toward his family and the world.
Shortly thereafter, with James a regular visitor and observer, Stevie is arrested for molesting an 8-year-old cousin. After a few years of legal maneuvering, the young man chooses jail over psychiatric assistance, angrily asserting “I don’t need no damn shrink talkin’ to me.” In one of pic’s most chilling sequences, Stevie is advised on prison etiquette by a pair of genial Aryan Brotherhood neighbors.
Through it all, Stevie and his relatives seem inexplicably bound to each other; they’re “the only damned family I’ve got,” he says. G.f. Tonya sums up the family’s position best: “I just don’t know what it is about Stevie,” she says almost sheepishly, “but I love him.”
At the fade, James stoically drives to prison with a book of Shakespeare plays Stevie has requested. “The best I can do,” he says with a resigned dignity, “is just try to be there for him anyway.”
As with “Hoop Dreams,” helmer’s ace in the hole is access. He and his crew seem to be with Stevie at all the important moments, and subplots involving his sister Brenda’s pregnancy and Bernice’s embrace of religion serve to flesh out the tangled family dynamics. Perhaps most importantly, James never judges Stevie, his family or the system, preferring to record events and offer counsel when asked. In sharp contrast, wife Judy, a professional counselor to sex offenders, is seen trying to grill the uncomfortable Stevie over pizza. Still, if the village as a whole has failed, the couple seem determined to do their part to understand Stevie, even if his fate is out of their control.
Tech package is first-rate for Super-16, which was flawlessly blown up to HDCam for the Toronto fest and Oscar qualifying screenings (35mm prints are promised for the theatrical release.) Dirk Powell’s score is a bit heavy-handed at times, though music supervisor Linda Cohen’s pungent use of existing tunes — most notably Steve Earle’s bittersweet rocker “I Ain’t Ever Satisfied” — never fails to capture the mood. Per helmer, Stevie has yet to see the finished film; efforts to screen it for him have been blocked by the state’s Dept. of Corrections.