Those of us who write about films for a living, along with those who make films for a living so that we can write about them, occupy a kind of aerie somewhere above those whose lives we film and whose films we write about. For example, most of us know who our fathers were; most of us were not beaten by our mothers, abandoned to the state's care and raised in foster homes and juvenile detention centers. Not many of us were raped as children and most of us had some kind of dental care as well.
But we of what you might call the gentle middle class, with intellect to spare, another language or two to use in our visits to the cultures of the world that pique our interest, and enough degrees to permit us to live in reasonable comfort in our choice of city, need to meet Stephen Fielding, the central figure in Steve James's documentary "Stevie." James, the Chicago documentarian who made the brilliant "Hoop Dreams," first met Stevie when he became his Big Brother while a student at Southern Illinois University in the early 1980s. Stevie was eleven, living at the one foster group home he would remember fondly, and the two had weekly visits in which they'd do Big Brother-Little Brother-type things. But when James graduated and moved to Chicago, he lost track of Stevie.
Twelve years later, in 1997, James thought of revisiting Stevie, this time as a documentarian, to see how he was doing. Stevie was now 26, with an already-long record of arrests and convictions, and he was facing a trial on charges of sexual molestation of his 8-year-old cousin. James found him willing to be filmed and began a two-year series of visits with a small camera and sound crew. What emerged from that two-year relationship is the life of Stevie.
He is a small, pugnacious man with a heavy beard and oversize glasses, and a ubiquitous billed cap that covers his prematurely thinning hair. When he is unable or unwilling to communicate he puts over his glasses a pair of huge wraparound shades, hunches over and is silent. When he speaks, it is in apocalyptic terms: "Either him or me will die," he says about someone who might possibly cross him. "If she touches me I'll kill her," he says about his mother. He has no perspective on either his actions or his life, and seemingly no interest in acquiring any. His childhood hurts are as powerful today as they were then; he makes no attempt to hide them or learn from them. He smokes a lot of pot and when he drinks he fights, and when he fights he does very stupid things that get him arrested. He lives on SSI checks, which his sister (whom he molested when they were young) handles for him.
Stevie is a profoundly uninteresting man, but it is essential that we - you and I - get to know him, because he is one among millions of our countrymen whose lives were blighted long before they had any possible control over how they were to be lived. He has a girlfriend, Tonya, a young woman who perhaps is slow - and perhaps not, we're not told - but who does have difficulty speaking. She says she loves him ("When he's not drinking") and at James's invitation they visit Chicago for a couple of days as a kind of vacation before Stevie is to be sentenced. In his life Stevie has learned macho posturing, but not much else. He seems not to know or care what his relationship with Tonya is or should be; she's just there. The film ends with Stevie's sentencing.
So is there a moral to this story? Maybe in the sense that "Stevie" gives us a chance to spend two hours and twenty minutes living with him, thinking about a society that regards failed child care structures and protections as perfectly adequate; that uses prisons for therapy; that thinks only, as Stevie does, of punishments for crimes real and imagined. Is there hope for Stevie? Only if there's hope for America, and I'm not optimistic.