on June 16, 2004
This is a powerful and moving documentary about a college student who served as a Big Brother to a troubled youth, then returned years later to make a film and really get to know him. During the filming, Stevie (the troubled youth and focus of the film) is charged with a serious crime and the film takes us through the effects of this, on Stevie, his family and friends, and on the director. By introducing viewers to the characters in Stevie's life, the movie presents an amazing portrait of growing up poor and the constraints of average life in low-income rural America. It also demonstrates the detrimental impact that can be had on young lives when individuals within a community fail to love and commit to children. It makes viewers question the influence of heridity, upbringing, and individual choice in the formation of one's life journey. Most importantly, it shows the complete character of a person that outsiders might label a monster, and forces viewers to hesitate before making judgments. At two hours 25 minutes, the movie runs long at times and could have used a little more editing. Overall, it's a powerful and important film, well worth viewing.
on December 20, 2003
Steve James, the director of Hoop Dreams, comes back to rural Illinois to make a movie about the little boy who became a man, Stevie Fielding. Steve J was his "Big Brother" once upon a time. He grew up with a mother that didn't want him, never knew his birth father, had a past of being abused and neglected, and basically was passed around all of the foster homes in Illinois.
The movie focuses partially on the trouble that Stevie has gotten into over the years, and the pending prison time he may have to do, because of some alleged crime he had committed during filming.
Stevie's life is a train wreck, impossible to turn away from. It is obvious that he has had severe emotional scars that have traveled with him into adulthood, and sometimes he just seems like a 28 year old child. He doesn't want to take responsibility for anything he has done. His life is an open book to those he talks to, as if he doesn't have any remorse for the major and minor crimes he has committed.
When you meet his mother, you start to understand where the attitude stems from. This is a woman, who beat him when he was a child, couldn't handle him herself, and turned him over to his grandma, who wasn't really his blood grandmother at all, but his step-dad's mother. The mother feels that people are constantly blaming her, for things past and present. It does seem though, that she tries to reconcile with Stevie and her daughter (who she has caused similar harm) throughout the film. Maybe she realized that she has made some mistakes in the past and she is ready to fess up. Maybe she feels guilt. I think a lot of the people involved feel guilt, including Steve J.
I really liked the honesty that went into it. Steve J. is like a Mr. Rogers, who is so sweet and kind, he seems a little timid at times, but very truthful. He asks Stevie, "do you feel that I abandoned you, when I moved away and stopped visiting you?" He was ready for the answer. I think that he's trying to make up for leaving him, because maybe he thinks that if he didn't leave him, Stevie wouldn't have turned out the way that he did.
For children that have had such a harsh childhood, is there anything you can really do for them in adulthood that will bring back the trust that they have lost? I really don't know. Stevie seems to avoid showing emotion, he never cried once that I could see. At the same time, he seems to care about those close to him, including his girlfriend, who is disabled, but is clearly making better choices than him.
I really loved Judy (the director's wife) in the film. Knowing her job description and what Stevie allegedly did, she seems to really care about him, and wants to help him. Whether or not Stevie is affected by any of the people who seem to care about him, I couldn't tell. He continually made bad choices, and his temper seemed to go up and down like a rollercoaster. One thing I will give him credit for, is the fact that he never laid a hand on his current fiance/girlfriend, because in his short-lived past marriage, he used to beat his wife. You realize that there are some mistakes that he has learned from.
Towards the end, Stevie leaves the house and climbs a tree, and it once again reminds me that he is a child. What happens when a child does something so bad that it's hard to forgive? Can you separate the behavior from the child? I think that's something that I struggled with, while I was viewing the film.
Like all good things, this had to come to an end. Not to spoil things, but, it didn't end happily. No matter what happens, it's good to know that people really do care about him, even though it he didn't find this out for many, many years.
on October 10, 2003
When I heard about this 2002 documentary by Steve James, the director who brought us "Hoop Dreams", I just had to see it. "Stevie" is a disturbing look at a tortured life of a blue-eyed blond child who had a rotten childhood and grew up to become an abuser himself. When the director was in college, he was a "big brother" to the little boy but later moved away. After ten years, he returned to meet up with Stevie, now an in his twenties. Stevie had been in every foster home in Southern Illinois and got in trouble in all of them. When we meet him, he is living with his step-grandmother, hates his mother, has had a short abusive marriage, has never held a steady job, and has a mentally retarded girlfriend.
The film follows this troubled young man for 4-1/2 years and the director cannot help but take a good hard look at his own role in the film he is making. Right in front of us we see the result of years of neglect and abuse of the boy, now a man. He's angry, abuses alcohol and is sometimes violent. The setting is rural Illinois, a place of trailer camps, fundamentalist churches, fishing creeks, white supremacist culture, pickup trucks and unemployment. With the exception of Stevie's half-sister, who has a happy marriage and eventually has a baby, most of the people are sad and angry. It is not a pretty place to live.
The film is 145 minutes long but it never lags. I was completely caught up in Stevie's life, my feelings ranging from pity to anger as it gradually became quite clear that Stevie's character was set for life and that there would be little, if any change. When he is charged with a crime, we see him fighting the justice system. Eventually, he loses. This is not surprising.
If this were fiction, there would be some sort of contrived ending. But this is a documentary and all it does is tell the truth. I loved this fine film. It's full of honesty and courage. And I applaud the filmmaker for making it. I highly recommended it. But be prepared to plunge into Stevie's troubled world.
on September 23, 2003
This past weekend, I "discovered" Stevie, a documentary that was in theaters earlier this year. Crafted by Steve James -- the documentary filmmaker behind "Hoop Dreams" -- it relates what happens when he returns to southern Illinois to find Stevie Fielding, a troubled 11 year old to whom he had been a Big Brother while in college but had since lost touch with upon his relocation to Chicago.
While overly long (coming in at just under 2 1/2 hours) and sometimes biting off more than it can chew -- an examination of the virulent, and still prevalent, racism in this country's rural white enclaves is worthy of a film in itself -- it is, for the most part, an enthralling but ultimately heartbreaking account of a lost soul who -- despite the efforts of some very well-meaning people -- has been allowed to slip through the cracks. It's a film that that never tries to sweep away the sometimes devastating consequences of Stevie's behavior but, rather, seeks to understand how that anti-social behavior was created in the first place.
So, if you're in the mood for something different, give Stevie a try. But be prepared for what you're getting into. I -- for one -- am not ashamed to say that I wept openly at times both for the needless "loss" of a little boy and at the astounding compassion that -- as this documentary shows -- some human beings are capable of.