Friday, September 9, 2011

Neglected Gems #6: Stevie (2002)

It’s a funny thing about movies. They may get critical acclaim, even score some box office success and years later they’re barely mentioned by anyone or even remembered. And there’s often no discernible reason for their fates. I really can’t tell why Neil Jordan’s terrific and accessible heist movie The Good Thief, which got good reviews when it came out in 2002, has pretty much vanished into the ether. Or why Steve Jordan’s powerful documentary Stevie (2002) failed to match the impact of his earlier 1994 doc Hoop Dreams. Or even why impressive debuts like Jeff Lipsky’s Childhood’s End (1997) didn’t get half the buzz that considerably lesser movies (Another EarthBallast) acquired upon their subsequent release. In any case, here is the latest entry in a series of disparate movies you really ought to see.

Steven James, director of the acclaimed basketball documentary, Hoop Dreams, returned with a superb doc about Stevie Franklin, a troubled soul who tests the patience of those who love him. If it was easy to root for the economically deprived African-American teens striving for basketball stardom in Hoop Dreams, Stevie offers no such solace. First encountered by the director when he acted as a big brother to a likable but disturbed 11-year-old boy, Stevie picks up 10 years later when Steven James decides to re-enter the boy's life. James finds the adult Stevie to be a foul-mouthed, drug-taking, angry man, torn between his ‘loving’ grandmother and ‘uncaring’ mother, who use him for their own ends. He's also getting into trouble with the law and, eventually, is accused of molesting a little girl.

Stevie Franklin in Stevie
It's the film's supreme accomplishment that James never sugarcoats his subject's actions and, in fact, cannot equivocally state that Stevie is innocent of this heinous crime. Nor does James let himself off the hook regarding his own guilty reasons for making this movie. The director, however, also knows  – and shows – that Stevie didn't necessarily have to turn out the way he did. Had a loving foster family who really cared about him had not left the young boy to the mercies of a brutal institution, who knows how he would have developed? Stevie is full of provocative observations like these – recognition that there are many paths, some not taken, that form a child before he turns into an adult. The film also respects its lower-class subjects, with the most telling analyses of Stevie's behavior and attitudes coming from Tonya, Stevie's' loving fiancée, who is as wise as any first-rate psychotherapist. The film is over two hours long – James understandably cannot get enough of Stevie – but it’s always riveting.

– Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto . He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University 's LIFE Institute and in September will be teaching a course on the work of Steven Spielberg. Also in the fall, he'll be teaching Genre Movies at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre in Toronto.

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