The Chicago-based filmmaker Steve James rose to prominence in 1994 with Hoop Dreams, a gritty, uncomfortably intimate portrait of two inner-city kids who try to escape poverty and deprivation through basketball. Shot over four years, it was at once a stirring indictment of the social services bureaucracy, a tribute to family strength and a paean to hope. That combination attracted surprisingly large audiences -- including a lot of mainstream moviegoers who wouldn't ordinarily sit still for a three-hour documentary.
James' well-meant new film, Stevie, will likely be a harder sell among those who want a little uplift with their nonfiction. Set amid the unpainted shacks and run-down trailer parks of a rural southern Illinois hamlet called Pomona, it's the grim biography of an angry, 31-year-old outcast named Stevie Fielding, whose personal problems and rap sheet have been steadily growing since his preteen years. Antisocial to say the least, he's got assault, burglary, check fraud and some other very nasty offenses on his record. At first glance, he's a caricature of ignorant white poverty, complete with scraggly beard, homemade tattoos and greasy Harley-Davidson cap. When he opens his mouth, his fractured grammar and go-to-hell attitude brand this thick-lipped, dull-eyed creature as what the politically incorrect call a hillbilly.
But Steve James has a gift for getting beneath every surface, for seeing people whole, and he does it here for a couple of reasons.
For one thing, Stevie Fielding is just the kind of disenfranchised, wretched-of-the-earth protagonist the socially conscious James is drawn to. An illegitimate, unwanted child, the kid was beaten regularly by his none-too-bright mother, Bernice ("I will not put up with any crap," she explains), then sent down the road to live with his step-grandmother, Verna Hagler. Shunted among foster families, finally dumped in a violent boys' home, Stevie Fielding was promptly raped, and the trauma set him on a path of rage, substance abuse and self-destruction. Wounded, infantile and clearly paranoid, he's also dangerous. We learn, early on, that Stevie has probably committed sexual abuse against an 8-year-old girl. With that blow, the scrappy heroism of Hoop Dreams' basketball players suddenly becomes a distant memory.
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James' other motive here is personal. While a student at Southern Illinois University in the early 1980s, the filmmaker-to-be volunteered to be 11-year-old Stevie Fielding's Advocate Big Brother. But when adulthood and career called, he left the boy behind and moved to Chicago. By the filmmaker's own admission, Stevie is not just the portrait of a doomed, unhappy life, it's the filmmaker's act of atonement for having failed the boy. Whatever else you think of Stevie, give James credit for conscience. At the same time, note how he sidesteps some tricky questions about sympathy and exploitation. Stevie is a cry of the heart; James must also know it's a product made at the expense of its subject.
Whatever their reasons, James and his nimble crew poke cameras and mikes into every tawdry (and occasionally comic) corner of Stevie's life: his relationship with crusty Grandma Verna, who tells us "Steven is not all there"; his squabbles with cops, public defenders and his benighted mother; a shaky romance with his sweet-tempered, mentally disabled fiancée, Tonya Gregory. If he gets angry with Tonya, Stevie promises, he won't hit her. Instead, he'll punch through the wall.
The brightest hope in this dim life seems to be Stevie's mostly empathetic stepsister, Brenda Hickam. "Only damn family I got," he tells us. Well, maybe. Probably headed for the penitentiary because he's pigheadedly refused a plea bargain, Stevie gets some unexpected help from the Aryan Brotherhood's local rep, who's just out of the joint himself. Middle-class and overeducated all the way, Steve James tacitly endorses this guy's plan to protect Stevie inside.
These unhappy two and a half hours -- James has got a problem with length -- are relieved here and there by strange wit, often at James' expense. At one point, Stevie fails to hit up the guilty filmmaker for a hundred bucks, but later he scores a new stereo set off him. "I want you to know," James protests, "it's more than I wanted to spend." Stevie just grins and says in that case they should have gone to Wal-Mart. But the light moments are few and far between. In the end, Stevie is a relentlessly messy, sometimes trying picture of family dysfunction, official neglect and personal tragedy, a disturbing redneck soap opera about real people and real consequences in which the protagonist -- like the filmmaker -- often proves to be as unlikable as he is sympathetic.