While filmmaker Steve James (Hoop Dreams) was a graduate student at Southern Illinois University, his wife urged him to become a Big Brother. He mentored a troubled eleven-year-old, Stevie Fielding, until moving on to Chicago on completion of his masters degree. James acknowledges a sense of relief when the relationship thus came to a natural end; he also says that he felt he owed it to Stevie to keep in touch, but he didn’t get back in contact for a decade. When he did, it was with the purpose of making Stevie the subject of a film.
Stevie, in a series of interviews with the subject, his family, and others, reveals a pattern of familial dysfunction carried from generation to generation. His mother, Bernice, came from West Virginia mountain people, alcoholics prone to violence. She, in turn, was a drinker and severely beat Stevie when he was a small boy–to the point where he entirely lost his speech for a time. She refused to bring him up and turned him over to her mother-in-law, Verna, who raised him. The relationship between Bernice and Verna was icy enough to end global warming and it is no wonder Stevie became a pawn between them. He was also placed in two different foster homes; in the second he was raped. For a time he was committed to a mental hospital.
It’s not surprising under such circumstances that Stevie, in turn, acts out with violence and misbehavior. A short marriage ended in violence and he runs up a series of offenses for assaults and credit card fraud. After the film was begun, he was charged with sexually molesting an eight-year-old cousin.
James goes to great lengths (two hours and twenty minutes) to explore the family relationships and develop a complex characterization of his subject. His greatest success here is in humanizing Stevie, a victim as well as a victimizer, uneducated, unproductive, unattractive. Especially touching is Stevie’s relationship with his "fiancee," Tonya, a mildly mentally challenged young woman who sees clearly and is able to articulate a highly sensible, realistic point of view. Although distressed by Stevie’s latest offense, she stands by him. "He makes me feel special," she says.
Stevie’s younger sister, Brenda, also experienced abuse by Stevie, but she has turned out to be a seemingly well-adjusted adult in a successful marriage and she is staunchly supportive of her brother. It appears that patterns of dysfunctionality can be broken by some.
What is mildly troubling is the relationship of documentarian and subject. James seems forthright in disclosing all the facts, but he seems, perhaps, less than candid about his own feelings. He expressed relief at the time his Big Brother responsibilities came to an end, but tells little of what that intitial experience was like, aside from differing from his expectations. Based on his later reconnection, there is an unstated sense of a gaping socio-economic gulf between him and Stevie. James says he came back motivated by guilt, but he also came back armed with a camera crew. He says the film was his act of atonement for failing to continue his contact with Stevie, but that seems his selfish motive, rather than any kind of restitution for the boy he abandoned. At one point Stevie sadly alludes to his dashed hopes when James didn’t reconnect over the years.
In scenes with the two of them together James never seems to have a genuine bond with Stevie. When they hug, James seems to be performing the ritual, rather than acting from any genuine emotional connection. James never seems out of his role as documentarian, even when he inescapably gets involved in the events transpiring. He assures Stevie that he will be there for him and he closes with a shot that is intended to substantiate that. Just how deep and how long after the end of the film James’ commitment runs is not disclosed, leaving a sense of misgiving.