You'd be hard-pressed to find a less sympathetic or attractive protagonist than Stephen Fielding, the subject of Steve James' documentary Stevie. His rap sheet is long, his crimes ranging from the minor and inept to the felonious and violent. He has crude, self-made tattoos and rotting teeth. But James' film is less about depicting Stevie as sympathetic than as complicated, someone whose actions cannot be excused but beg to be illuminated.
In the early '80s, while attending Southern Illinois University, the filmmaker became Steve Fielding's Big Brother. At age 11, Stevie was already a tough case -- his mother had abandoned him as an infant, leaving the child to be raised in foster homes while appearing in his life episodically to beat him brutally. He was hyperactive and somber, drawn to snakes and, eerily, to skulking around the yard in a Cheshire cat costume. Despite placement with a series of competent, sympathetic foster parents -- several of whom are revisited here -- Stevie was repeatedly raped by other juveniles in foster homes. He became increasingly antisocial, and unruly, spending the latter part of his adolescence bouncing between mental hospitals and juvenile detention centers.
In 1985, when the boy was 13, James moved to Chicago to make films and lost touch with Stevie. Ten years later, back in Illinois to promote his widely acclaimed documentary Hoop Dreams, James -- film crew in tow -- reunited with Stevie. James' "little brother" was now 24, and though balding and menacing-looking, still had an incongruent, boyish sheepishness and clear affection for the filmmaker.
Over the next five years, James continued following Stevie and others in Stevie's sphere, including his mother, who'd become a born-again Christian and sought his forgiveness, and his younger stepsister, who tries -- futilely, mostly -- to keep him away from booze and pot.
Strangely, Stevie grows on you. So when, midway through the film, he commits an utterly heinous crime -- to which he confesses in writing -- you are shocked and repulsed but no longer in a position to simply shrug him off.
The filmmaker is himself a subject of the documentary, cajoling Stevie on-camera to cop to a plea and get counseling rather than plead not guilty, vowing to be a character witness for him, commiserating with his family. Like the writer Janet Malcom, rather than conceal what a slippery slope it is to win subjects' trust and tell their stories, James renders the slippery slope visible. When he's trying to convince Stevie's mother, Bernice, to be interviewed on camera, Bernice's sister accuses Jones of attempting to make a movie that somehow condones Stevie's crime. "This film will be an honest film. As honest as I can make it. I'm not going to grill Bernice," James says in his defense. Immediately afterward James voices over, miserably: "Then I proceeded to do just that," and reduces Bernice to tears in the interview.
The truths of Stevie are perhaps banal ones, that the abused become abusers, that even those who commit monstrous acts have redeeming qualities. Yet there is a heart-wrenching honesty here, a simple eloquence that suggests -- in the future, perhaps, or just off the screen -- redemption. * * * *