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1 review, 7 user ratings

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by Collin Souter

"Brilliant. Steve James maintains responsibility as filmmaker and friend."
4 stars

Participatory documentaries can often be problematic. For what does it say about the filmmaker that they feel their life/thoughts and views carry such importance that they should be on film for the world to see? Since the filmmaker goes into a documentary film with a hope in mind that the events will form a cohesive structure that amount to something substantial, it would not be unlikely for the intrusive party to meddle with situations and facts in order to arrive at something dramatic. Thus, we the viewers have to ask ourselves: Are we being had? Are we really watching reality unfold if the filmmaker inserts themselves into the proceedings? How can a participatory documentary be even remotely objective?

These bothersome questions did meddle their way into my mind during Steve James’ documentary “Stevie,” a movie about the filmmaker and his attempt to reunite with a troubled old friend whom he once helped many years ago through a Big Brother program. James announces at the start that the film will be about him. “Stevie” is the name of his friend, Stephen Fielding. Stevie lives in Pomona, a rural town in southern Illinois made up of run-down shacks, trailers, stray dogs and fishing creeks. Steve ("Hoop Dreams") James still lives in Chicago and travels down to Pomona in order to get an update on Stevie’s life.

“Stevie” does concentrate mostly on its titular subject, but because he shares a past with James, we truly get the sense that this story should be told and that it does not represent an ego-stroke on the part of the filmmaker. But who is this Stevie and why should we care? Stevie is a balding, gap-toothed, backwoods trailer park racist with fits of rage that pertain mostly to his mother and her horrible job of upbringing (Even though she lives just down the street from her, she left him to be raised by his step-Grandmother). He has also been to his share of foster homes and gone through his share of violent and sexual abuse. Stevie never had a chance.

The film concentrates on his life from 1995, just before he gets caught sexually molesting his own 8-year old niece, to present day. Of course, Stevie denies the incident at first, but soon writes out a confession. We learn early on that Stevie has had many run-ins with the law for various charges of assault, battery and theft. At one point, he even beat up his ex wife, an incident he has promised he will never repeat on anyone. “I get mad, I just punch a wall next time,” he says, to which his fiancé replies, “and he has, too.”

This may not sound like an endearing or engaging subject for a documentary, but something about Stevie’s personality and James’ devotion to him and his family keeps us riveted for the movie’s entire 2 ˝ hour duration. James, because he failed at the Big Brother program, sees the tragedy in Stevie and wants to try and save him somehow. James feels that Stevie should be punished, but that he also possesses the insight to seek redemption. Even Stevie’s fiancé, Tonya Gregory, a nice insightful woman with a speech impediment, doesn’t want Stevie to go to jail, but also wrestles with the predicament in which he has put her. Can she marry a convicted sex offender?

Here is where “Stevie” becomes something of a challenge for the audience. How on earth do we find sympathy for a guy like Stevie? To filmmaker James, the only way would be to really get to know him. James must walk a fine line in this situation both as a friend trying to do the right thing and as a filmmaker to try and give the audience the right idea about Stevie. We sympathize for his plight. James does not have an easy answer for any of this. Of course, he knows Stevie better than we ever will, so of course he does what he can to get him help, but it is to James’ credit that we root for Stevie to somehow overcome his anger, his tendencies and, most of all, his vices.

This will not go down easy for every person who watches this film, and rightly so. “Stevie” does not try to make a case for its subject, but rather to just explain why people like him put themselves in these awful situations. Should Stevie be punished for what he did? Absolutely. Can he redeem himself? Probably not, but we have hope. Does this give every child molester some sort of pass because of a Freudian theory about traumatic childhood? No, but “Stevie” is not out to make any political or psychological statement in the first place. “Stevie” is a personal film told for personal reasons.

A good hour or so of “Stevie” plays like a real-life “25th Hour,” in which we watch a convicted man spend his last few months of freedom trying to make sense of it all while shunning those around him trying to make sense of it for him. At one point, James takes Stevie and Tonya for a tour of Chicago where Stevie is paranoid about being mugged. James’ wife, Judy, who encouraged James in the first place to participate in the Big Brother program, wants to be Stevie’s counselor, but she has a predicament as well. She can barely stand the thought of Stevie being in her house for too long because the James’ have three kids of their own.

“Stevie” sounds like a true downer, and it can be most of the time, but there does exist some genuine humor as well. It is funny to me after 2 hours of seeing lots and lots of Harley Davidson paraphernalia that we should see one of Stevie’s friends wearing a Les Miserables t-shirt. Stevie, while being a person we wouldn’t really want to spend more than 10 minutes with, starts to grow on us after a while even when we find him despicable. He has his moments of goodness and good humor. Even when cornered by one of Tonya’s old friends about Stevie’s racist attitude (He would rather die than let a black person give him mouth-to-mouth), we get the sense that he realizes he should have been raised better.

Stevie’s friends and family cannot forgive him for what he did, but they will be there for him. Therein lies the heart of “Stevie,” a movie about a convicted sex offender that will move you to tears at the end. James does not let Stevie off the hook completely. We do leave the theater thinking of the trauma that little girl has faced and will have to live with for the rest of her life, but mainly because we see what that same kind of trauma has done to Stevie. We get the sense that the cycle will keep going, but we can only hope that she has a friend like James who can try to see through the ugliness and make the world a better place by helping. “Stevie” does beg those ethical questions to be asked, but after a while, they don’t seem to matter much.

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originally posted: 03/30/03 16:25:19
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Sundance Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 SXSW Film Festival. For more in the 2003 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Philadelphia Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Sydney Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Sydney Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Brisbane Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Brisbane Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Santa Monica Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Santa Monica Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

4/07/08 Flora I was intrigued, sad, angry, disgusted; now I have to ask: where/how are they all now? 4 stars
2/07/08 Charles Tatum Stunning; I demand a follow-up film 5 stars
5/27/07 Mindy Waren Incredible insight into how some are a product of their enviroment. 5 stars
9/19/04 Brian Juvers Outstanding! 5 stars
9/06/04 David Great Documentary 4 stars
6/18/04 Dianne - NJ Excellent documentary, Definetely recommend 5 stars
12/12/03 Jason very good documentary, i was hooked from start to end 5 stars
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  11-Apr-2003 (R)



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