****/**** Image A Sound A- Extras A
directed by Steve James
by Walter Chaw Eleven years after mentoring little Stevie in an Advocate Big Brother program in rural Illinois, documentary filmmaker Steve James restores ties to find that Stevie is a troubled man, emotionally crippled and awaiting trial for molesting his eight-year-old cousin. In science, the Heisenberg Principle postulates that the essential nature of an object changes when that object is observed; its application to documentary filmmaking is obvious. The question, then, becomes whether the documentarian should give himself a part in the film or remain outside of it, the alleged unobserved observer that in several critical contexts (Lacanian, Heisenbergian) loses its meaning, anyway. Integrity in the observation of documentary subjects is a delicate thing to navigate, and Stevie chooses early and often to be more about the Steve behind the camera than the Stevie before it. Stevie fascinates because it's a little like Montaigne's essays--a process of self-discovery that manages to indict our broken health care system and our "selfish cell" society in one fell swoop.
There is a moment late in the film where Stevie and his fiancé Tonya stay with her disabled best friend while visiting the big city. Said friend's monologue regarding the toll of sexual abuse on its victims is among the most poignant and affecting human statements ever captured on film. Stevie is dense with moments of like meta-experience/meta-observation; it works in a way that's impossibly difficult to deconstruct, functioning at once as a literal exposé of social ills and as a greater look at the way our personal realities are often built on foundations of remorse and betrayed expectation. As James admits early in the film, his vision of the Big Brother program was based on glory rather than the reality of an abused child like Stevie. That feeling of broken expectation and the cold confrontation with the weaknesses of the self in light of harsh reality (a kindly former step-mom bemoans, "Sometimes I wish we didn't have to be human") is the motor that drives the work. The filmmaker even confronts his own intrusion into Stevie's life not only in the present with camera, but also in the past as a young man ill-equipped to tackle a problem like Stevie's.
If there is hope in Stevie, a film about imperfection, it's the hope that there exists in the advantaged a social conscience--a guilt complex thorny enough to impel the alien anthropologist to journey into the wilds of the lower caste. James is careful not to make judgments about Stevie and careful, too, to be forthright about the extent to which he "interferes" or does not interfere with the progression of his subject's life, raising the question again of the filmmaker's responsibility to impartiality and as to whether art ever really is about the thing observed or always an exploration of the artist and his purpose. Stevie provokes thought in a way that's personal and uncomfortable--it urges a re-examination of our reaction to the guy by the side of the road with a sign, and of our first reactions when the local news indicts a monster weighted by the same human blemishes and stains that prevented us from caring when it might have mattered. Most startling, though, is the extent to which the film shines a light on the creative process and how, at its best, the art becomes the fire in which the artist burns. Originally published: April 11, 2003.
by Bill Chambers We shall see, but I can't conceive of encountering a better movie this year than Stevie, which makes its way to DVD in an exceptional presentation. Shot on Super16, the film looks for the most part resplendent in its 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer--the less-than-optimal lighting conditions keep grain in flux, of course, but until listening to the commentary, I was certain I was seeing something that originated in 35mm or HD, mixed-media segments excepted. Dirk Powell's score haunts the forward soundstage in a 2.0 Dolby Digital stereo mix; while dialogue is exceedingly clear, the optional English subtitles come in handy for deciphering the more under-the-breath statements of Stevie's subjects. Camera operators Dana Kupper and Gordon Quinn join director Steve James and producer/sound designer Adam Singer for a laid-back but indispensable commentary track that serves as a feature-length dissertation on the ethics of documentary and this documentary, in particular.
Although James seems to have made peace with the picture's invasiveness, it does nothing to dampen the introspection of James and his crew when confronted all over again with the picture's more cringe-inducing moments, such as Stevie's drunken meltdown at a Chicago dance club--a mere tease of how intense things got off-camera according to Kupper, who feels she let down the production by declining to film certain patches of ugliness. Valuably, since this is the sort of thing a documentary can never incorporate, James addresses reactions to the finished film of various people portrayed in Stevie. Also included are five deleted scenes, separate from the main feature, that show James to be a chiseller of keen instincts: one elision finds Stevie visiting a childhood friend, an effective passage that would simply have introduced an emotional touchstone too late in the action to matter. Hidden behind a Lions Gate logo, trailers for Stevie and The Eyes of Tammy Faye round out this integral package.
145 minutes; R; 1.85:1 (16x9-enhanced); English DD 2.0 (Stereo); English, Spanish subtitles; DVD-9; Region One; Lions Gate