The roots of Steve James's disturbing documentary lie in youthful idealism: As a student at Southern Illinois University in the mid-1980s, he became a Big Brother to Stephen Fielding, an impoverished child from near-rural Pomona. A plump, thick-lipped 11-year-old with chunky glasses, Stevie had already been profoundly failed by his fractured family. By the time James graduated and moved to Chicago, 13-year-old Stevie was increasingly troubled and troublesome. James pursued filmmaking, eventually making the acclaimed HOOP DREAMS (1994), while Stevie got lost in state homes, foster care and mental institutions. In 1995, James returned for a brief, uncomfortable reunion and found Stevie, 22, living in a Pomona trailer with his step-grandmother, Verna Hagler, and stewing in bilious hatred of his mother, Bernice Hagler. James withdrew again to make PREFONTAINE (1997); two years later, Stevie was in jail. James's unflinching portrait of concentric hells of family dysfunction is heartbreaking and horrifying in equal parts, and to James's credit, he addresses his own role in determining Stevie's stunted future. By stepping into the life of an awkward, dirt-poor outcast and then disappearing, James contributed to a cycle of abandonment that began with Stevie's mother — who fobbed him off on Verna as a toddler — and continued until he was of legal age to be his own problem. Unsurprisingly, he continued to be everyone's problem, and the grown Stevie — a walking compendium of white-trash clichés — is no easier than the child. He has bad teeth, bad hair and a fondness for confederate regalia, a rap sheet but no job, a beer can and bong perpetually at the ready. An ill-fated teenage marriage to an older woman lies behind Stevie, the consequences of molesting his 8-year-old niece lie ahead. James's accomplishment lies in dispassionately exploring the circumstances that shaped Stevie — neglect and beatings, long stretches in state-run institutions where he was ignored at best and abused at worst — without suggesting that they excuse his adult behavior. Stevie's spotlight spills over to his family, notably his beloved yet distant grandmother; his younger half-sister, Brenda, and her husband, Doug Hickam; Bernice and her sister, Wendy; and Stevie's girlfriend, Tonya. Rather than relegate them to the periphery, James lets their stories assume their own weight. Brenda's struggle to become pregnant is as compelling as Stevie's legal battles, and rather than exploiting freak-show stereotypes, James shine a light on phenomenal reserves of strength, kindness and wisdom that lie beneath the redneck facades.
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- Released: 2003
- Rating: NR
- Review: The roots of Steve James's disturbing documentary lie in youthful idealism: As a student at Southern Illinois University in the mid-1980s, he became a Big Brother to Stephen Fielding, an impoverished child from near-rural Pomona. A plump, thick-lipped 11-y… (more)