2003 - R - 144 Mins.
|Director: Steve James, Steve James (II)|
|Producer: Steve James, Steve James (II)|
|Starring: Steve James, Stephen Fielding, Tonya Gregory, Bernice Hagler, Verna Hagler, Brenda Hickam, Doug Hickam, Judy James |
|Review by: James O'Ehley
An (almost) two-and-half hour long documentary about a white trash redneck child molester named Stevie didn’t seem like a particularly appealing notion.
However, after reading some positive reviews of this 2002 movie by the director of the much-acclaimed “Hoop Dreams” on the Internet, I decided to give the recently released “Stevie” DVD a shot. (Interestingly enough, the user reviews on the Internet Movie Database are more mixed than those of the critics who are usually positive about “Stevie”.)
My perfunctory one-sentence synopsis above is a bit unfair really. While the titular Stevie remains unlikable throughout the entire movie, one does begin to understand him a bit better as the movie progresses. In fact, the life story of Stevie (short for Stephen Fielding) is one that is depressingly familiar. In ‘Anna Karenina’, Tolstoy wrote that unhappy families are all unhappy in deeply unique ways – that one family differs very much from the other.
In real life this is however not the case. Stephen Fielding’s life is a familiar litany of abuse and neglect as child. Beaten by his mother (he didn’t know who his father was – and still doesn’t), Stevie is given to his mother’s new husband’s mother to take care of him. However, as Stevie grows older, he becomes the quintessential ‘problem child’ – deemed uncontrollable he is consumed by the American social welfare system and is sent from one foster parent house and institution to another. He is raped as a child. Early on a psychologist states that Stevie will probably one day become a child molester himself because of his own history.
Wherever you stand on the nature versus nurture debate, it soon become clear that the system has failed Stevie as someone in the movie points out. Psychopaths and human monsters such as Stalin and Hitler for example share a history of beatings by drunken fathers, neglect, etc. Our childhoods do to a large degree determine the person we will be one day. The point is that state institutions and social welfare may provide cases such as Stevie with their basic material needs, but cannot provide a loving and caring family.
For the director of “Stevie” this is a personal movie.
While a student at university director Steve James ‘adopted’ an eleven-year-old Stevie as part of a so-called ‘big brother’ support program. However, as time passes, he lost contact with Stevie. Ten years later, feeling guilty, James looks Stevie up again. Stevie has always been an “accident waiting to happen” James informs in his voice-over however things have turned out much worse for Stevie than he had expected.
Now a man in his twenties, Stevie has had several brushes with the law and has a criminal record. He is a substance abuser prone to violent outbursts. Worse of all, he is accused of sexually molesting his niece. She is eight years old.
Watching “Stevie” is like watching a real-time train wreck unfold in slow motion. We know what is going to happen and why, and we can only look on in bizarre fascination. Perhaps the same unexplained grotesque psychological impulse that makes us slow down to look at car accidents by the side of the road is at play here.
If my plot synopsis makes “Stevie” seems like a typical Jerry Springer episode expanded to two-and-a-half hours, you would be wrong. One’s innate social snobbery (we are talking serious trailer park trash here!) soon makes way to involvement with the people onscreen.
Although the movie could have done with some more editing (it drags at about the three-quarters mark) I found myself surprised when “Stevie” finally ended: its two-and-half-hours went past quite quickly.
Some of the IMDB users have complained that “Stevie” is pointless and that film-maker James merely exploited Stephen Fielding and his friends and family for his own commercial proposes. Interestingly enough, director James also examines his own motives at one point in the movie.
Whatever the case may be, this real-life human drama made for mesmerizing viewing and is recommended if you enjoy documentaries.