Too Close for Comfort 

A Documentarian Walks the Line

by Jonathan Mahalak

Stevie

dir. James

Opens Fri April 18

Various Theaters

When I first saw a trailer for this Steve James documentary about a year and a half ago, I figured it could never work: highly esteemed documentary filmmaker (Hoop Dreams) goes back to the impoverished rural town of Pomona, Illinois to reacquaint himself with Stevie Fielding, whom he mentored through the Big Brothers program in college. James finds the problems that caused Fielding to be the troubled child he remembered from the early 1980s are magnified in adulthood--the system has continued to fail him, resulting in a life of crime and destructive behavior. I figured James would be too close to his subject, approaching him from a position that would facilitate patronization, and that the two men's disparate lives since their Big Brother days would certainly lead to a pandering portrait.

Let's just say that the trailer was not indicative of the project--a few minutes of edited footage could never do justice to this gripping and tragic story. When James started making Stevie in 1997, he lacked a significant narrative hook to make an effective film. But during the course of the project, Fielding was accused of sexually abusing his young niece. Though the film examines many aspects of his life--his family, his girlfriend, his tumultuous upbringing that saw him in a number of foster homes and social programs--it is the molestation that anchors the film. James nimbly adapts his vision, and continues chasing the story until its dramatic conclusion years later.

James becomes an integral part of the story, a natural instinct that can be an Achilles' heel for a documentarian. He lends Fielding money. He is dragged into Fielding's family politics. His own family becomes entangled in the story. He genuinely cares for Fielding's well being despite his troubles, all the while juggling his own personal connections with his professional obligation to strive for objectivity. There are many times when it looks like James is going to lose control of this near-masterpiece, but somehow he keeps the reigns. Never does he pander to his audience, and he treats the motley crew surrounding his subject with respect and dignity.

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