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Film digs into the pain of 'Stevie'

Friday, April 18, 2003

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Nothing -- absolutely nothing -- excuses what Stevie Fielding reportedly did to his 8-year-old cousin.


RATING: Unrated but R in nature for brief language, subject matter

DIRECTOR: Steve James


Local movie showtimes


But a documentary called "Stevie," from the director of "Hoop Dreams" and opening today at the Squirrel Hill Theater, explains how a troubled life fueled by abandonment, abuse and anger led to that point. How violence ricocheted from the back hills of West Virginia, where high heels, coal shovels and switches were used as weapons on two sisters, to a rural Illinois town called Pomona. That's where a woman gave birth to an illegitimate son and eventually left him to her new mother-in-law (no relation to the boy) to raise in a home 50 yards away.

That boy was Stevie, and filmmaker Steve James was a student at Southern Illinois University when he became his Big Brother. Stevie was an 11-year-old hyperactive kid living a sad and troubled life, and James vowed to stay in touch with him after graduation, but didn't -- for a decade.

In 1995, James decided to reconnect and he soon found himself not only filmmaker but a central player in the drama that was Stevie's life. "I constantly wrestled with questions of not just whether I should be in the film, but whether I should even make the film at all," James says in the production notes. You can sense his uncertainty and discomfort at wanting or needing to document family skeletons and still-smoldering resentments.

Stevie, after all, had once tried to cut the brake lines on his mother's car and a quietly exasperated James asks him, "How do you ever move on if you don't get over stuff? You just going to take this to your grave?" At that point, Stevie says he'll hang on to what his mother did until she dies.

If Michael Moore approached his documentary, "Bowling for Columbine," with rage, righteousness and a fast, facile style, James was clearly pained and tormented by what he and fellow producers Gordon Quinn and Adam Singer captured in a slower, more deliberate way. "Columbine" and "Stevie" were nominated for best documentary at the Independent Spirit Awards, and Moore took home the prize.

If Moore examined the big picture, James peered into the little one. But the little one wasn't just about Stevie, his jury-rigged family, trip through foster care and a mental hospital, eventual discharge and return to where he started.

It was about Grandma, the woman who will always take him in. It's about his mother, now a churchgoer living in a homey trailer who acknowledges, "Yeah, I whipped him." It's about his sister, happily married since age 16, employed since 18 and longing for children. It's about Stevie's fiancee and her disabled but straight-thinking best friend from high school.

Like "Daughter From Danang," another documentary that recently played Pittsburgh, "Stevie" doesn't have the happy Hollywood ending we expect. Still, hope endures in some of the oddest places and James may have been thwarted in ferreting out the truth about Stevie's earliest days, but the filmmaker was reborn as a Big Brother to a man who needs one now as much as he did in the 1980s. If not more.

Barbara Vancheri can be reached at bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632.

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