When you’re young, people who are old — like, say, your grandparents or your elderly neighbors — can seem as if they were always that way. But in reality, there’s no neat and magical line that separates “old” and “young.” Old people are, quite simply, former young people. And now, more than ever, they may not see or experience themselves as “old” even if the rest of the world does. The boomers, of course, are the ones who changed all this. They have not gone quaintly, or quietly, into senior-citizen status — on the contrary, they’ve reconfigured old age to mean nothing more (or less) than how often they’ve been around the block. The new vision of old age is that you’re still tied, physically and spiritually, in every way possible, to who you were when you weren’t old.
“Diane,” written and directed by Kent Jones (with Martin Scorsese serving as executive producer), is the most accomplished dramatic feature I’ve seen at the Tribeca Film Festival. It’s a tender, wrenching, and beautifully made movie, and part of what’s revelatory about it is that it’s a story of boomers who are confronting the ravages of old age (disease and death, the waning of dreams), yet they’re doing it with a stubborn echo of the hopes and desires they had when they were younger. They’re old, but the movie is keenly aware — in a way that movies almost never are — that they remain every inch who they were. The past hangs over “Diane” not just as a burden or nostalgia (though it can be that too), but as an enthralling and entangling reminder of life’s mystery.
The title character is a widow, played by the 70-year-old Mary Kay Place, who lives in rural Massachusetts, where she has spent the better part of her life. Her neighbors include friends and relatives who go back with her for decades; they’re a time-worn community. Yet everyone seems separate, somehow. Diane’s days are filled with encounters — she has lunches with her good friend, Bobbie (Andrea Martin), at the local buffet, a place where they both agree that the food is terrible, and she plays gin rummy with her cousin, Donna (Deirdre O’Connell), who’s in the hospital fighting a losing battle with cervical cancer.
She also spends a great deal of time — too much of it — looking after her son, Brian (Jake Lacy), who’s around 30 and has made a mess of his life. He has no job, his house is a dirty wreck, and he’s an addict (his drug of choice, given the stupor he gets in when he’s high, appears to be opioids or heroin, though we’re never told), struggling with the lies that mask his apparently losing battle with recovery. Brian, it’s implied, has been Diane’s ne’er-do-well albatross for years, and their fraught relationship is starting to drag her down, but the interplay between these two, like everything else in the film, is ferociously present tense. (Lacy has some of the bright-eyed volatility of the young Vincent D’Onofrio.) Jones’ dialogue is layered with hints of what happened in the past, but you never catch him showing his hand in an expository way. The scenes percolate with inner life, creating the sense that we’re eavesdropping.
“Diane” is anecdotal in form, but it’s a true journey, all built around Mary Kay Place’s remarkable performance. Her Diane is a churchgoer, with an ingrained belief that it’s her job to take care of others; she delivers casseroles to friends and serves food at a homeless shelter. But she does it with a very old school kind of tough love. She doesn’t hesitate to call Brian out on his chicanery (the movie captures a reality of addicts that too often remains unspoken: that they can be egregiously annoying), and though she’s surrounded by a circle of supportive women, she has a way of lashing out at their weak spots. Beneath her becalmed surface, Diane is haunted, carrying shadows from her past, and that’s the puzzle we put together as we watch the movie — the story of her own addiction and selfish passion (that weekend at the Cape! when she abandoned her young son to have an affair), which has guided the karma of her life in ways she never expected, leading to the moment of invisible reckoning she’s at now.
Place’s performance has a forlorn gravity, but it’s also full of spirit and pluck, and an anger you don’t want to get in the way of. At times, she may remind you of Gena Rowlands; there are also hints of Place’s background as a comedian. It’s not that Diane goes around cracking jokes so much as that, on some level, she’s bitterly amused at the people who surround her. She has everyone’s number.
The way old age reveals itself in “Diane,” apart from the stark fact that the people Diane knows keep dying, is that the characters have been around too long to bother putting on airs. Sitting in a kitchen, they drink and smoke and call each other on the same bulls—t rationalizations they’ve been peddling for years. Jones’ dialogue is scalpel-sharp, yet it flows with an organic ease. And though this is his first dramatic feature (he has made several documentaries, including the superb “Hitchcock/Truffaut”), he directs with an unusually skilled precision and sensuality. “Diane” has a marvelous atmosphere of New England melancholy, with eerie glass-harmonica music and images of thick bare foliage, often shot from a driver’s–seat–eye–view, that are suffused with a luminous but lonely twilight glow. The story takes its time, but will flip ahead to shock us with the matter-of-fact news of a character’s death. In “Diane,” death happens and life goes on, though maybe with a heightened chill.
Jones has been a member of the New York film community for a long time (he has spent much of that time at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, where he is currently the director of the New York Film Festival), and it’s unusual to see a figure with that background step out of his comfort zone to write and direct a dramatic feature. But what’s even more unusual is to see him do it with the humanity and flair that Jones shows here. There’s a mournfulness to “Diane,” but the movie is never sodden — it’s intensely enjoyable and alive. Jones stages scenes that have a bristling power, like one in which Diane guzzles margaritas at the bar she used to hang out at, losing herself at the jukebox as she sways to Leon Russell (in a flash, 30 years seem to melt away), or the stupendous dinner-table argument that takes place at Brian’s house after he figures out a very flawed way to save himself. The ending is majestic: a vision of memory, death, and God. It’s up to Kent Jones whether or not he wants to abandon his day job, but “Diane” demonstrates that he has the potential to be a major filmmaker.