A few months before Capturing the Friedmans nabbed an Oscar nomination and torrents of positive press for its portrayal of a suburban father and son accused of child molestation, this documentary about a downscale young man facing the same charges slipped by without much notice. Maybe Steve James’ portrait of the messed-up manchild he’d tried to mentor years earlier as a Big Brother is just too damn depressing for most people, but those who stick with it are in for an engrossing meditation on the necessity for and limits of personal responsibility.
The film starts when James returns to rural Illinois to try to reconnect to Stevie after having lost touch for a decade. Feeling guilty for having abandoned a boy who was failed by so many others and who needed so much, he says in his voiceover that he wants “to understand Stevie in a way that I and others had failed to all those years.”
What he finds is a fiercely defensive bearded boy who was beaten and then abandoned by his mother, raped in the group foster home where he lived for several years, and used as an emotional pawn in a feud between his mother and the step-grandmother who helped raise him. Bubbling over with rage and insecurity, Stevie tests the patience of everyone who gets near him. And then he molests his eight-year-old niece and has to grapple with being a victimizer as well as a victim, leaning hard on his two old friends, denial and drunkenness.
The slow progress of Stevie’s case provides the narrative through-line for the movie, which ends shortly after his sentencing. In the meantime, James gets to know Stevie, inserting himself into his world with deceptively gentle persistence. (“Why do you get into all this shit?” Stevie’s mother asks as he interrupts a pleasant exchange between her and her daughter to probe into why the two were feuding a few days earlier.)
A lot of people—including James himself and his social worker wife—care a lot about Stevie, and we both hear about and feel for ourselves the mangled charm that attracts them to him. As his girlfriend Tanya puts it, with a shy smile: “I don’t know what it is about Stevie, but I love him.” James earns the trust of everyone in Stevie’s circle, putting them sufficiently at ease to collect revealing comments about and interactions with him. In the process, without ever forgetting or condoning Stevie’s heinous act, he pushes through it, letting us see Stevie as the “12-year-old boy that’s lost” that his aunt, the mother of the girl he molested, still sees in him.
So why couldn’t any of those people help that boy grow up and decide not to perpetuate the cycle of abuse he was born into? James’ wife says the system was doomed to fail Stevie, since the system can never fill the hole left by parental abuse and neglect. But James keeps asking question, either mulling over his own guilt or filming others as they wonder what they might have done differently. As one of Stevie’s former teachers says: “We had a lot of intelligent people working on him over the years, trying to come up with something that would either motivate him or help him control himself, and we never came up with it.”