The documentary Stevie ostensibly refers to its primary subject, Stephen Fielding, but could also refer to its prime mover, documentarian Steve James (Hoop Dreams). While in college, James served as the young Fielding's "Big Brother," before abandoning him for a documentary career. When James returned to rural Southern Illinois in the mid-nineties, he reconnected with Fielding and had two feelings: a guilty desire to help the wayward young man and the exhilaration of a filmmaker smelling a movie in the making.
As a filmic story, Stevie holds significant interest for 140 minutes and is, perhaps, inordinately thought-provoking. On that level, Stevie is a commendable film. However, what first appears to be an intriguing lack of objectivity turns into an upsetting lack of perspective on the part of James as filmmaker and human being. The emotional bonds and hurts of parents and lovers power what could have been an honestly won story of devastation. As it is, the fascinating finished product resembles a hall of mirrors in its untrustworthy vantage point, which inevitably creates a multitude of others for each audience member.
Back in the mid-eighties, Little Stevie was a bastard child of an absent father and a hard-drinking, abusive mother, Bernice. Bernice foisted Stevie onto her next-door-neighbor, Stevie's step-grandmother. In that home, next door to the biological mother who didn't want him, the rattled Stevie staggered into adulthood. When James finds him, he is still living with his step-grandmom, physically but not emotionally near to his estranged mother. Bernice left drink behind and became "saved," but remains tight-lipped about the identity of Stevie's real father. Also in the picture are Stevie's beloved step-sister Brenda and his loyal girlfriend Tonya, whose superficial "slowness" belies her ability to honestly appraise Stevie for better and worse.
We first meet the two Steves in 1995, but after a voyeuristic check-in, James checks out for two years. When we rejoin Fielding, he's been accused of raping an eight-year-old girl. Though James keeps his sad-sack poker face on screen, one imagines him rubbing his hands in private: "Now we've really got something." In fact, James is just a man perpetually in over his head, which he shakes with 20/20 hindsight. As a filmmaker, James has better instincts, capturing lingering and fleeting images to help forge the narrative (like Stevie happily exercising rare power, over his fishing bait; crickets wriggling in a jar suggest his own torturous plight).
On one level, Stevie is about society's cast-offs, like Fielding, an emotionally needy, perpetual child of abuse left pretty much to fend for himself. James once did something for Fielding in the face of a "not my problem" culture, and for briefly answering the question "Then whose problem is he?," he can be commended. But what of the oft-cited Chinese proverb "When you save a life, you become responsible for that life"? The fragile child of abandonment needs to trust James, and James puts a camera between himself and his "brother."
It is here that the film locates its partly unintentional lower level. James is honest enough to question his own behavior, past and present (like when he kicks himself for standing by his camera and allowing the boozy, small-town man-child to succumb to a Chicago nightclub). But James's self-questioning rings hollow, as the existence of his finished film in the marketplace is, from one perspective, evidence of his lack of courage. Many reviewers have argued, in the contrary, that James and his film are "brave," though presumably James is brave just for taking another look at Stevie. Most everything that follows seems cowardly, including James's half-hearted, too-little, too-late entrées into Stephen's economic and legal woes. Ask yourself, in the end, if the noted documentarian with the camera couldn't have jumped in to the legal pool (instead of dabbing his toe), and used his influence to stem the tides.
Yes, a documentarian should remain uninvolved, but one should also know what constitutes fair and just material for one's own films. Would James train the camera on his own family in this way? Would he as easily lose perspective if his biological kin was on the line? To Stevie, James is family, and James's chronically guilty demeanor suggests he knows it. There but for the grace of God go we, but if we do, one hopes we do it without a camera.