" The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as the Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient. And as the philosophy of the orient expresses it, life is not important. "
— General William Westmoreland, Hearts and Minds

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There is a scene in Stevie of such perfect unspoken hostility that it’s a wonder it wasn’t scripted and acted by masters. Unfortunately, Stevie is a documentary, and the people in the scene are all family members trying to enjoy a birthday party.

Stevie is a voyeuristic look at one American and his broken family, including his Big Brother who went on to become a filmmaker.

He Ain’t Heavy

Stevie and Steve live in different worlds
Stevie and Steve live in different worlds

Stevie is an emotionally exhausting 140 minutes. Stevie Fielding is the filmmaker’s former Little Brother. He was a troubled child; emotionally, physically and sexually abused. He even ended up in a mental institution for a time.

Stevie had a bout with good luck while he was going through the foster system. For a couple of years, he had two perfect foster parents who treated him well, protected him, and were simply there for him. Like his Big Brother James, however, they just couldn’t stay forever, and in the next foster home, Stevie was raped.

Steve James, the filmmaker, hadn’t seen Stevie in ten years when he went back to rural Illinois for a visit. Things were okay with Stevie, but not great. He had been arrested a few times. There was still friction in his family. He hadn’t been able to find and keep a job.

Two years later, James returned again and things were much worse. Stevie had been accused of molesting a young girl, his cousin. In fact, a social worker had predicted this might happen, saying that Stevie views children as his emotional peers.

What Stevie allegedly — probably — did is appalling, but Stevie himself is not a monster. He is a touching, sympathetic character, if unstable. His big glasses match his big, pillow lips. He’s not the brightest man, but he’s good at fishing, he loves the outdoors, and he likes snakes. He also has a great girlfriend, Tonya, who loves him, but not blindly.

Stories Within Stories

The film’s larger story arc is whether Stevie can be helped. Two of his foster parents tried. Steve James tried. His sister tries on and off. Two churches and the leader of the local Aryan Brotherhood all try to save Stevie. The ultimate answer is that life is not like the movies, and the best thing you can do to help someone is simply be there.

Within this arc are smaller stories, which are more touching, funny, and amazing than anything a mere screenwriter could come up with.

Steve hates his mother, whom he says beat him. James talks to Stevie’s mother on-camera. She says she never beat Stevie. When pressed, she confesses she might have whupped her kids for smarting off, but she never beat them.

Stevie is not shy about speaking of his hatred for his mother. During one of Steve and Stevie’s reunions, Stevie half-confesses, half-brags about the time he tried to kill her by cutting her brake lines but ended up cutting the speedometer cable instead. At this awkward moment, the camera glances at James’ wife, who is quickly pushing her children out of the room.

Hostile Generosity

As a voyeur into the life of Stevie, my favorite story has to be the subtly hostile birthday party.

Stevie is meeting with his mom and sister for his belated birthday party. The aggression begins when mom gives him his gift. Rather than handing it to him, she plops it on the table in front of him, just out of reach. He doesn’t reach for it right away, instead he looks at his watch and says “little late, isn’t it?” His sister and mother join forces to tell him to be more grateful for the gift. He finally opens it. It is cologne. Is this a genuine gift or a subtle insult? His sister scores points against both her mother’s gift and Stevie’s hygiene by saying “you should have got him soap on a rope.”

A New Yorker review says the idea of affluent liberals poking cameras at rural rubes is arrogance, and they’re partly right. But James’ honest attachment absolves him, and a darkened theater and the price of a ticket excuses my voyeurism, or so I tell myself.

At 140 minutes, Stevie is too long. We can feel James trying to find a happy ending for Stevie’s story and for his own movie, but he always stays a moment too long and a new conflict arises. Except for its tail-lessness Stevie is wonderful. It’s voyeuristic fun, it’s emotionally moving, and it invites long and interesting conversations about crime and punishment, altruism, voyeurism, and family ties. See Stevie, and see it with a friend.