After almost single-handedly reinvigorating media attention in the documentary genre with Hoop Dreams (1994), director and producer Steve James returns to the silver screen with the provocative Stevie. Examining the dysfunctional family unit with courageous objectivity, he traces the forces of nature and nurture that have shaped the life of a troubled young man. Having once looked after a boy as an Advocate Big Brother (later abandoning him) James follows his Little Brother’s life as it enters a tail spin and questions his own role in the adolescent’s downfall.
Stevie explores the director’s return to Poloma, IL, a small town where he had once helped take care of the 12-year-old Stevie. Cast off by his mother as an unwanted pregnancy, Stevie bounced between abusive parents at various foster homes. Beginning as an exploration of Stevie’s life, the director’s emotional entanglements with the subject draw him into the film, making it a personal journey. Trying to atone for leaving the boy, James becomes a character in his own documentary, repeatedly questioning his conflicting roles as filmmaker and friend. Examining his own exploitation of Stevie in the film, for example, James writes in his journal, “When I was his Big Brother, I had never thought of Stevie as a film subject. Tonight it was as if that’s all he was to me.”
Ultimately, Stevie becomes less of a static examination of a tortured youth and more of a multilayered investigation of family, government, and societal apathy. James’ role increases as Stevie’s problems are magnified. Guiding him through his tattered family life and legal problems, the filmmaker wrestles with being the positive male role model that the Little Brother lacked throughout his formative years.
Complimenting the emotional subject matter is Gilbert, Kupper, and Quinn’s cinematography. Unsympathetically shooting the actions of a man who brags about committing crimes and threatens to kill his mother, the camera examines his lifestyle without judging him. Yet, with brilliant precision, it captures glimpses of hope in the characters’ eyes and intimately frames their raw emotions without appearing to invade their private space.
The film’s objectivity is one of its most remarkable characteristics. Between two of the director’s visits to Poloma, for example, Stevie is charged with raping an eight-year-old girl. Although Stevie declares his innocence, James does not allow the audience to forget the transgression. Instead, we learn how he has been abused and understand the reasons for his evolution from victim to victimiser.
As a sex offender against children, we are not expected to forgive Stevie, but we are asked to be sensitive to the influence of his background on his behavior. The audience may not necessarily like him, but we are implored to feel sympathetic. By exploring his humanity, monstrosity, and positive potential as a human being, we experience mixed emotions for a complex man. As Stevie’s girlfriend admits, “I don’t know what it is about Stevie that I love, but I love him.” We feel the same way.
The film asks, “What if we really could have stuck it out with that kid for 20 years?” Being married to a social worker, James thinks that the tortured soul might excel in a nurturing environment. Then again, as an illegitimate child and abused kid, maybe Stevie didn’t have a chance at all. Regardless, as Stevie’s fate unwinds on the screen, the audience is compelled by equally overwhelming feelings of repulsion and compassion.
REVIEW BY JONATHAN AGES