- The Washington Times - Monday, May 12, 2003

“It’s one of those films …,” begins Steve James, discussing “Stevie,” his new documentary feature, booked exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle. “Well, even the people who like it can scare off other people when they talk about it.”

Exactly, but there’s no other choice. All the disincentives stem from the movie’s bedrock, painful authenticity, the inescapably frustrating and heartbreaking nature of its subject matter.

“Stevie” is genuinely scary in ways that conventional horror thrillers never are because they seldom deal with the way real people make life miserable for each other. The film may prove a hard sell even in the specialized realm of profoundly depressing yet also stirring and edifying nonfiction movies.

There are times when I felt a strong urge to abandon “Stevie,” a chronicle of small town misfortune and abuse in southwestern Illinois. You ask yourself why the filmmaker persists, accentuating his own role as a well-meaning but apologetic and certainly intrusive outsider. Ultimately, there are reasons to be grateful that he does, because the kinfolk who repeatedly fail and yet need each other in “Stevie” say things no fictional account could duplicate or surpass.

Mr. James, who is based in Chicago, is best known as the director of the epic sports chronicle “Hoop Dreams.” Released to merited acclaim in 1994, it took an extended look at high-pressure high school basketball in the Chicago area.

Mr. James attended graduate school at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, majoring in film studies. While enrolled in the early 1980s, he agreed to volunteer for the Big Brother program.

He mentored for about three years a young man named Stephen Dale Fielding, the Stevie of the current movie.

The boy was 11 when they first met. An illegitimate child, he was abandoned by his mother, Bernice Hagler, in curious circumstances. While pregnant, she became involved with a man she later married, Arvyle Hagler, now deceased. They had a child, Stevie’s younger sister Brenda, now married to a young man named Doug Hickam and expecting her fourth child. A subplot of the movie is her determination to have a first child.

Although the Haglers raised Brenda, Stevie had been offloaded in plain sight. For many years he lived with Arvyle Hagler’s mother, Verna, in the same small town, Pomona, where his mother and stepfather also lived.

The mutual acrimony that festered between daughter-in-law and mother-in-law is excruciating to witness.

After the death of her husband in 1981, Verna found herself unable to cope with the responsibility of raising the boy alone.

The identity of Stevie’s real dad has remained Bernice’s deep, dark secret. For a time, Stevie was happy in a foster home managed by a couple named Dorinda and Hal. When they left, his situation deteriorated. Mr. James was distantly aware of this decline in letters sporadically exchanged after he moved to Chicago in 1985, but he let the connection lapse, resuming it only 10 years later, when he paid a visit to Carbondale after acquiring some fame for “Hoop Dreams.”

The movie chronicle begins at that point. Originally, it was meant to be only a short documentary portrait of a young man who had had a rough time and faced a dodgy future, in part because he was well on his way to being incorrigible.

Stevie had acquired a precocious rap sheet for hometown brawling and petty crime, a weakness for pot and booze and a scuzzy appearance pretty certain to arouse aversion in the stable and law-abiding.

Returning more than a year later, after he completed the biopic “Prefontaine,” Mr. James discovered a Stevie in greater jeopardy, facing a child molestation charge. The remainder of the film covers a subsequent period of two or three years, concluding with Stevie’s departure to prison to serve a 10-year sentence for that crime.

Besides the principal subject and members of his family, the cast of characters expands to include Stevie’s remarkable girlfriend, Tonya Gregory. She and a good friend named Patricia enlarge your idea of what hopefulness can mean, especially in the face of discouraging odds.

The developments include a tentative reconciliation between mother and son, commencing with Bernice’s embrace of a local evangelical church.

As he returns for updates, the filmmaker is not all that successful in concealing a burdensome sense of inadequacy. Clearly, Mr. James feels rotten for having failed to remain a Big Brother indefinitely.

On the other hand, he has a family of his own. A comparable commitment to Stevie would be asking a lot, and it might not have precluded the sort of pathologies that led to the penitentiary.

Who could do enough? The boy was saddled with an ominous heritage from birth.

Fundamentally, it’s that phantom father and estranged mother he needed for protection. A sad history of neglect, abuse and ignorance may have made it impossible for the young man we encounter to save himself, but taking its cue from Tonya, the movie declines to abandon hope.

..

TITLE: “Stevie”

RATING: No MPAA rating (adult subject matter consistent with the R category — a documentary concerned with family conflict and criminal jeopardy; frequent profanity and occasional sexual candor; discussion of a child molestation case; accounts of domestic violence and child abuse)

CREDITS: Directed by Steve James. Produced by Mr. James, Gordon Quinn and Adam Singer. Photography by Dana Kupper, Mr. Quinn and Peter Gilbert. Editing by Mr. James and William Haugse. Music by Dirk Powell

RUNNING TIME: 140 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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