Good Intentions 

Wrenching documentary confronts a filmmaker with the subject he may have failed

Wrenching documentary confronts a filmmaker with the subject he may have failed

Is it worse to start helping someone in need and then give up, or never to try at all? The question cuts through the noble impulses that lie dormant in virtually every heart. It would be easy to say any crumb of help counts. It would be just as easy to argue the opposite: that people in desperate circumstances should develop their own resources, and that holding out hope is cruel. One of the many remarkable things about Steve James’ documentary Stevie is that it supports both arguments but doesn’t allow easy answers either way.

As a Southern Illinois grad student in the 1980s, in the flush of liberal zeal, James volunteered in a Big Brother Program. It sounded like a breeze. James, who had yet to start his landmark Hoop Dreams project, says he imagined getting a little buddy whose needs were no more demanding than weekend games of catch. Instead, he was set up with a troubled kid named Stevie Fielding. By the time James met him, Stevie had been beaten and abandoned by his mother, who left him with his grandma.

This scared, seething, clingy child needed more than Cubs games and weekly visits, and James admits he couldn’t provide it. In 1985, when James finished school and parted ways with Stevie, he recalls a guilty feeling of relief. Ten years later, after the success of Hoop Dreams, the filmmaker went back to Stevie’s hometown of Pomona to see how he’d grown up. What James found was a beer-stoked, belligerent 23-year-old with thinning hair and a gut poking out of his Harley T-shirt.

If that sounds like the stereotypical description of a redneck, James doesn’t flinch from showing his obvious discomfort at Stevie’s present condition. Part of that unease comes from their class divide; much of it is guilt. Everywhere the director looks, he sees evidence of Stevie’s abandonment and his own part in it. While they were apart, he learns, Stevie went through every foster home in Illinois, enduring years of rape, abuse and neglect. The impact is obvious on Stevie, who talks reflexively about killing his mother Bernice. As it turns out, James has reentered Stevie’s life when his “little brother” needs compassion most and stands the least chance to get it.

The awful irony is that the worse Stevie’s life gets, the better a movie James has. His movie, I’m sorry to say for Stevie, is utterly gripping. At the point when Stevie’s family life could scarcely get worse, he is accused of a loathsome crime—one of which he is likely guilty. While he quietly implodes on camera, James faces a new set of ethical misgivings. Has he come back into Stevie’s life just for juicy material—and by holding the guy’s life up to painful scrutiny, isn’t James just hurting him all over again? Similar accusations dogged James after Hoop Dreams. To the filmmaker’s credit, he puts the question to Stevie point blank, and he doesn’t flinch from the wounding answer.

Stevie has some of the gawky fascination of reality shows. What elevates it is James’ open mixture of good intentions, guilt-stricken dread and inescapable opportunism, which complicates our reactions to Stevie. In a City Confidential, he’d be a predator; in a Frontline special, he might be society’s victim. James’ tangled loyalties prevent easy moralizing either way. Without excusing or glibly explaining away his actions, Stevie says that Stevie Fielding was a kid who deserved a shot at a better life, and he didn’t get one. Whether that’s because a well-meaning do-gooder like James didn’t try hard enough, or because others never tried at all, is a question that can never be answered. For whatever cold consolation Stevie offers its subject, though, the question won’t be forgotten.

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