In the early 1980s, Steve James, then a student at Southern Illinois University, befriended an 11-year-old boy named Stevie Fielding as part of the Big Brother program. Steve and Stevie were from two different worlds, James being a middle-class young man on the career track, Fielding a hyperkinetic "problem child" living in rural squalor, abandoned by his mother and headed toward a series of foster homes and juvenile detention centers. But the two bonded and a little more than 10 years later James, now an established filmmaker (Hoop Dreams), decided to revisit Stevie, camera in tow, to find out what had happened to his young friend, now 24.
Not surprisingly, what had happened is that Stevie had turned out to be a mess, a tattooed, boozing, pot-smoking permanent delinquent with a history of jail time and with no apparent redeeming qualities. Alternately moody and boastful, he seemed like a bad seed with a limited repertoire of phony poses — definitely someone you don't really want to get to know.
But the remarkable achievement of James' film is the way it draws you into Stevie's world to the point where you actually begin to care about his fate. For the first 20 minutes or so, the idea of spending nearly 2 1/2 hours with this guy seems like a potentially very long haul. And it's not just Stevie, it's the whole benighted, violent, helpless and hopeless milieu he's stuck in, with its wounding family squabbles and everybody drowning in surplus pointlessness, while turning horribly obese from too many cheap starchy meals. Slowly, though, you begin to see both the larger picture and the perplexing details, the way Stevie has been shaped and the way he himself has learned how to stubbornly perpetrate his own misery.
Despite his life of crime and dissipation, Stevie doesn't seem evil. He's not a cold-eyed sociopath, just seriously fucked up. There's even a certain wide-eyed innocence that peeks out once in awhile, a remnant of the child who existed before the beatings and the sexual abuse that drove him inward. This secret sweetness explains, in part, why his fiancee, Tonya, remains loyal to him, even after he's charged with sexually molesting his 8-year-old cousin. Tonya has a speech impediment and an internal stutter that have led some reviewers to refer to her as "retarded," which seems odd since she's one of the more reasonable people in the film.
Certainly more reasonable than Stevie, whose most frustrating quality is his inability to grasp the reality of the consequences of his actions and choices, even when those consequences are starting to bear down on him. At one point, when Stevie is told by his lawyer that he could avoid serious prison time for the molestation charges by going into counseling, he flatly refuses, rejecting the idea of himself as someone who needs psychiatric help. But false pride isn't his problem; rather it's his inability to see his situation clearly enough to make a compromise that will save him a great deal of suffering. He knows he's in deep shit, but he doesn't know exactly what that means or the extent to which it can hurt him.
Throughout Stevie's ordeal, James appears as an empathetic but ineffectual presence, repeatedly reassuring him that he’ll "be there for him," which, in the context of Stevie's plight, means next to nothing. But he seems aware of his inability to save the young man — especially after he takes Stevie and Tonya on a visit to Chicago, which becomes a small disaster — and that gives the events an added layer of poignancy. The film is as much about James learning the limits of compassion as it is about Stevie hurtling toward his bad end.
The film's length is justified because Stevie becomes a rounded character, rather than a sociological cliché, only after we've seen his complicated love-hate relationship with his mother and sister, his briefly effective embracing of the local religion, his encounter with some Aryan Brotherhood members who almost seem to get through to him when describing the horrors of prison — only after we've seen his emotional world of temporary escapes and slow starving. We may not become entirely sympathetic, but we can witness the waste and wonder what can be done.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday through Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.