Steve James, who directed the exceptional “Hoop Dreams” in 1994, offers a more intimate but equally piercing slice of life in his new documentary, a very personal story about his re-connection with Stephen Dale Fielding, to whom he had been a Big Brother some ten years earlier. “Stevie” is every bit as much a tale of dashed hopes and the effects of environment as “Hoop Dreams” was, but the setting in this case is far different: the rural regions of small-town southern Illinois rather than the urban blight of south-side Chicago. And it’s just as insightful–and painful.
This is one of those documentaries that’s about the filmmaker as much as his subject. James, who narrates the piece, informs us that under prodding from his then-girlfriend (now wife Judy, a social worker), he joined the Big Brothers program while an undergrad at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale and was assigned the eleven-year old Fielding, whom he mentored awkwardly until his graduation in 1985. Stevie was already a problem child–abandoned by his mother Bernice (who refused to say who his real father was), raised for a time by his step-grandparents (his stepfather having died). and handed over for lengthy periods to the state fostercare system, which proved largely incapable of helping him (and sometimes prone to do him added damage). By the time that James felt the urge to look up Stevie again in 1995, the young man was a virtual derelict living in a trailer in his old home town. His octogenarian step-grandmother Verna Hagler explains away his life of petty crime by bad-mouthing Bernice, who’s trying to re-establish some link with her son, and Stevie also has an on-again, off-again relationship with his half-sister Brenda, who’s made a relatively normal life with husband Doug and is desperately longs to get pregnant. But his closest friendship is with girlfriend Tonya Gregory, a hearing-impaired young woman whose parents are understandably upset at their being together. The filmmaker tells Stevie that he’d like to “be there for him” now, but he soon disconnects again, and when he comes back two years later, Stevie is in serious legal trouble, accused of the crime that, in today’s society, is considered the most heinous of all. James tries to advise Fielding about his case, but ultimately Stevie makes his own choices–which, as usual, it seems, turn out to be entirely the wrong ones–and winds up in prison.
There’s a sad, pathetic sense of inevitability to Stevie’s story, and though he’s hardly a likable fellow, so long as the film concentrates on him and the members of his highly dysfunctional family (and well as other locals, some pleasant and others rather frightening), it’s a fascinating case study. (The elderly Verna is an especially intriguing figure, alternately sympathetic and terrifying.) Unfortunately James inserts himself into things much too insistently; over time the picture comes to seem more a method for him to exorcise his own sense of guilt at failing his “friend” than a truly compassionate study of the Hagler-Fielding clan. The Steve James section of the piece is, frankly, much less interesting, and that fact that it takes up an inordinate amount of the 145-minute running time makes the film seem more than a little self-indulgent.
Nonetheless once you set that aside, the leisurely, almost rambling approach that James has adopted eventually pays dividends. By the close “Stevie,” like the even longer “Hoop Dreams,” has become a highly revealing sociological document. And that, after all, is what the best non-fiction filmmaking is all about.