STEVIE (director/writer/editor/producer: Steve James; cinematographers: Dana Kupper/Gordon Quinn; editor: Peter Gilbert; music: William Haugse; cast: Steve James, Stephen Fielding, Judy James, Verna Hagler, Bernice Hagler, Brenda Hickam, Doug Hickam, Tonya Gregory; Runtime: 140; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Gordon Quinn/Adam Singer; Lions Gate; 2002)
“An engrossing but not always pleasing cinema verité documentary.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
An engrossing but not always pleasing cinema verité documentary about a troubled child who turns into a troubled young man and and has a dubious relationship with filmmaker Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”), who chooses to reinvest his time on their relationship when he discovers he’s onto a hot subject. James returns to rural southern Illinois (around Pomona) to reconnect with Stevie the now 24-year-old, in 1995, to see again the abused and unwanted 11-year-old child, Stevie Fielding, whom he was a Big Brother to in 1985 when he attended Southern Illinois University. Riddled with feelings of guilt over his abandonment of Stevie for work as a Chicago filmmaker and concerned over the long trail of arrests Stevie incurred during those ensuing years, James in this overlong two-hour-and-20-minute slice-of-life dramatization examines the life forces that shaped Stevie’s growth and his own brand of liberal thinking. But this modest aim changes focus because Stevie is arrested when he reaches 26 and is charged with sexually molesting his 8-year-old niece, the daughter of his mother’s sister. The filmmaker switches gears and chronicles the next four and a half years of Stevie’s battle with the courts and his broken family, trying to make sense of it rather than to establish his guilt or innocence. It becomes more of an indictment against America’s social services and justice system, as well as a look at how widespread the breakdown of the American family has become and how tortured is the childhood experience for those who are abused in this seemingly never ending cycle.
Stevie is described by the filmmaker as “an accident waiting to happen.” He had a terrible childhood — illegitimate, abused and abandoned by his mom Bernice Hagler to the foster care system (where he was reportedly raped as he went from home to home, except for one home where he found temporary happiness). He was raised briefly by an embittered but devoted step-grandma Verna Hagler, who hated his mother for marrying her son Arvyle. But she turned him over to the foster care system because she was too old to care for the energetic youngster. Also the often sweet natured but hardly likable when enraged child was labeled as mentally limited and unmanageable in school, and never matured as an adult. When James meets again this once presentable and inquisitive youngster with some potential, he’s in denial about his petty crimes and is full of blame for his mom ruining his life. His appearance is disheveled, his hairy body heavily tattooed, and he seems to have gone down a never ending path of asocial activities including drug and alcohol abuse. The bleak story follows Stevie mending fences with mom, slowly maneuvering his way through his doomed prospects as we get to know something about the people who meant the most to him–his relatives (including his half-sister Brenda and her husband Doug) and his mentally retarded fiancée Tonya Gregory (her parents reject him, but she loves him for unspecified reasons even though she thinks he’s guilty of the child molestation charges), as well as meeting the victim’s angry mother and some Baptist leaders who convert him and members of the community such as the Aryan Brotherhood (offering him protection in prison from the blacks).
What makes the documentary special, no matter what I think of the filmmaker for using his subjects in such an exploitative way, is that it gives the viewer something tangible to see about real “white trash” trailer people caught in their own ignorance and foibles while also trapped by the inadequacy of a system they are dependent on for their survival. It’s mentioned that even if the system worked, it couldn’t provide the nurturing a good family could. In Stevie’s case, the system didn’t work but there is no way he can’t be blamed for some bad decision making and those close to him for never reaching him in time with the right word.
There was always something about this film that never felt right, as the more James laid his guilt trip out the more it seemed that it left a bitter taste in my mouth. I never saw him offer any real compassion to the kid, only saying “he’ll always be there for him” but seemingly with a camera in hand. He also offered some kind of vague superficial counseling as does his more reluctant distant social worker wife. It’s no wonder the kid never knew what to think of him after all those years, as James seems to be one of these so-called regular guys who can never loosen up and say what he really means. The kid and his relations seemed to have no trouble speaking their mind, but James always appeared awkward and uptight on camera–all squinty-eyed and tight-assed, even when saying adios amigo to his film star as he’s off in 1999 to serve a 10 year prison sentence that could have been avoided if he listened to his public defender and took the plea agreement the state offered that would involve psychiatric sex counseling. A very troublesome film indeed, one that should have a different emotional effect on each viewer but one that clearly shows the malaise of a dysfunctional society that runs all across America’s cities, suburbs and rural areas.
REVIEWED ON 12/22/2003 GRADE: B-
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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