Stevie (Review)

(8 out of 10)
Dir. Steve James (Hoop Dreams)
140 min.

Should You See This Film?
I wanted to see this film when it played at Restaurant Row, and I wanted to see it even more after I learned it was one of the Arts and Faith top 100 Most Spiritual Films. I was not disappointed, and I don’t think many of you will be either, especially if you like documentaries. The film is rather long and, if I had one criticism, I thought they could have cut out some footage. But the film still gets an 8 from me, and I think a lot of you will think highly of it.

Like other great documentaries the filmmakers capture characters and scenes that make the film worth watching. This came out during a year of other good documentaries: Spellbound, Capturing the Friedmans, and I don’t recall hearing as much buzz about Stevie, but it deserves it. To me, it’s just as good as the other films, and it affected me in much more profound (if not very comfortable way.) For those of you who remember, there was a scene in Spellbound that I raved about. Well, there’s one in Stevie that just might be more impressive than that one.

But some of the issues the film raised are really important to me, and I think these issues will be important for most of you. Here’s a plot summary: Steve James, the filmmaker, goes back to visit a man he mentored as a big brother ten years ago. The film chronicles what happened to this boy, Stevie, and also examines his life. If you have ever tried to befriend a troubled person, this is a film that you could really relate to.

This would make a great companion to the films Dead Man Walking, and Monster.

Personal Comments

What do you do with people like Stevie? This is a question I have had to face and probably will continue to face in my life. The fact that the film made me ask this question of myself made this a spiritual film for me. Some people may focus on Stevie and his family and friends, but I focused on director, Steve James and other people that could help Stevie. How much of myself should I give to someone like Stevie? Is it fair to say that James and the first foster family have failed Stevie? One might argue that there are limits of giving one’s self, and that may be true. But if Stevie had gotten the love and guidance from a good family, I think he would have gotten what he needed to avoid the kind of person he has become. The bottom line is that no one gave him that. Besides the interesting characters and footage the director captured and put together (and there were many of those), these were issues that affected (disturbed) me the most.

What is painful to me is that, deep down, I don’t want to give more of myself. I wouldn’t want to open myself completely to someone like Stevie even if I knew that giving him the love and guidance would have dramatically changed the course of his life for the better. I want to reserve time and place without people like Stevie. I want to protect my middle class existence. That’s the part that is painful. I watched Steve James’ reactions, and I felt he was going through similar things (although I might just be reading too much into it).

The scene where Steve James tells Stevie that no matter what happens he will be there for him affected me. I believe James asks if Stevie realizes that, and Stevie answers in a vague way. To me, when James expresses his concern he does so in a very cautious sort of way, as if he doesn’t want to over commit himself or exaggerate his feelings for Stevie. Perhaps, he knows that his concern for Stevie is not as great as it should be. I’ve been in that position.

I kept thinking about what was going on in Stevie’s mind. If I was Stevie I would be thinking, “Yeah, you’ll be there when it’s convenient for you. You care about me, so long as caring doesn’t significantly disrupt your comfortable existence.” I’d be a little bitter. Then again, what do you expect? You can’t expect to a person to give of them selves in that way, can you? On the other hand, don’t act like you really care about me, because if you did, you’d give a lot more of yourself.

Does Jesus call us to give in that way? Man, I think he does, but I don’t give in that way. Stevie needed (and still does need) a lot of love and attention. More than therapy and counseling, he needs Jesus’ love, but he needs that love as manifested through the body. The sad and disturbing thing is that I wouldn’t be willing to give the love that he needs.

Besides these questions the film raised, the movie also does a good job of giving us a more sympathetic and human portrait of a person constantly in trouble with the law. Perhaps, the presentation of Stevie is a lot more sympathetic, then fair. We do get to hear from one of parent’s of a victim Stevie molested. And the filmmaker tries to get Stevie to acknowledge the problem and get help.

But there were some touching and incredible moments in the film, and I want to talk about those. My favorite, by far, is the scene in Partricia Downey’s (Tonya’s friend) apartment. In the commentary, James says she’s like an oracle, and I felt that was pretty good description. The interaction between she and Stevie was incredible. She really nailed Stevie on a lot of things, and when you look at Stevie’s reaction, he’s really disarmed and speechless. He’s not getting mad or irritated in a way that he might if James was saying these things. Here’s this person who is supposedly disabled, nailing him about his ful attitude towards Tonya’s parents (Tonya, correctly I believe, charges Stevie with showing off), about marriage. But the drama of the scene goes up a notch when Stevie leaves and Tonya and Patricia talk about Stevie’s ual offense. When Patricia talks about being a victim herself and Stevie walks in right when she’s saying that the perpetrators don’t realize the pain they’ve caused, it’s a really powerful and incredible moment. Kudos to the camera person for capturing that scene. The really focused on the right faces at the right time and made the scene worth the price of admission.

Patricia and Tonya were two of the most likeable and impressive people in the film. In the commentary James calls Patricia a kind of oracle, and I think that’s apt. I also think she became this instant big sister to Stevie, the kind that calls you on things in a way that you accept. As James said in the commentary, Stevie seemed not to see the disability.

I also paid close attention to Tonya, what she said and the way she reacted, and she impressed me with her sharp perception and love for Stevie. I was moved when Stevie and his first foster parent are talking on the side. The foster mom calls her over because Tonya is distraught. Tonya is moved and distraught because she realizes Stevie’s need for a good man like that to talk to. Both her awareness and love for Stevie moved me.

There were also some despicable and spooky characters in the film, too. The scene with the group leader was creepy, yet interesting, particularly since the leader asked James some uncomfortable questions about punishment for – ffenders. These scenes are even more affecting because these are real people, not actors.

If I had a problem with the film, it would be the length of the film and some of the scenes they decided to allow. For example, I thought the fishing scene with Stevie and his friend (Mike?) could have been totally cut out without taking away anything important from the film.

Some other people also raised ethical questions about James making this film. Is the film exploitative? Is there a conflict of interest between being a documentarian and a friend to Stevie? I don’t think the film really helps Stevie much, but it does help James. If James really wanted to help Stevie, he might decide not to make the movie at all. On the other hand, what would be wrong about making the movie if it didn’t hurt Stevie? James may have left out footage in the Stevie’s best interests.

For me, I was so fixated on questions of personal responsibility for people who are better off, particularly Christians, so I felt the film was valuable in that way. I also didn’t get a strong sense that the film did damage to Stevie. I think these ethical considerations should be considered and not dismissed outright.

2 Responses to “Stevie (Review)”

  1. Chris


    I put this one on my queue . . . these are question that are very familiar to me, as I’ve kept in touch with a handful of youth I had worked with at NHM. Some are doing pretty well, but most are still in dire and unstable circumstances — bottomless holes of need and alienation. I could go on and on about this . . . maybe in a different thread, or out of the public message-board format.


  2. Reid


    I definitely thought of you and Abra while watching this film. I think you will definitely be able to relate to many aspects of the characters and situations in the film. The film may be so close to home that you really don’t want to watch it. While you may feel a little of that, I think think this film is worth watching, and I think you’ll agree that it is a good film, particularly valuable for the questions it raises. Let’s talk about it after you’ve seen it.
    (Or start a separate thread about the issues you wanted to explore.)

You can add images to your comment by clicking here.