Stevie refers as much to its director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) as it does to its mentally-handicapped rural man-child subject Stevie Fielding. In 1986, James left his hometown in the Illinois countryside for a filmmaking career, abandoning Stevie—a troubled young boy he had taken under his wing through a local Big Brother program—in the process. The boy, as this somewhat indulgent but nonetheless gripping documentary account of shirked responsibilities makes clear, endured a nightmarish childhood in which his mother and stepfather relinquished parental duties to the boy’s step-grandmother. A troublemaker who couldn’t be controlled by his elderly guardian, he then spent time in every foster care center in southern Illinois, where he was further physically and sexually abused. As his parole officer states, “You’ve heard it takes a village to raise a child? Well, what happens when the village fails?”
As a result of his tumultuous and unfathomably painful youth, the kid turned into a repeat convict and, as the film begins, an accused sex offender for inappropriately manhandling an eight-year-old girl. Ten years after leaving, James returns to check in on his discarded charge, and the film awkwardly becomes both probing character study and melancholic mea culpa—the director feels tremendous guilt for not staying in touch with the boy, even as we see that his train wreck of a family (including a frustrated but loving sister, a mother and grandmother who despise one another, and a devoted, similarly-handicapped fiancé) had a lot to do with Stevie becoming the confused and angry mess he is today. At least sort of.
While the film makes a convincing (if longwinded) case that Stevie is the product of a life in which violence and emotional retardation were the natural outgrowth of his upbringing, the grown man at the center of James’s film—now facing serious criminal charges that may put him away for a decade or longer—remains obstinately unwilling to confront his problems. Stevie refuses to enter therapy or consider a plea bargain that would eliminate the threat of jail time and, as a result, seems as responsible for his perilous situation as the awful mother and foster parents he refuses to make peace with. Thrusting himself into the film’s spotlight, James finds himself stuck trying to reconcile his affection and sympathy for Stevie with his repulsion over the crime James believes he has committed.
When the director brings Stevie and his fiancé to visit the first (and best) foster parents Stevie ever lived with, the grown man is transformed into a vision of carefree adolescence, and the scene powerfully conveys the disconnect between what could have been and what really is (he returns home to have Aryan Brotherhood members counsel him on the best way to survive prison). It’s a testament to the director’s compassion for Stevie’s plight that, given the setting’s abundance of tacky trailer homes and inarticulate Southern colloquialisms, the film never devolves into condescension. Stevie is a depressing account of the ways in which violence perpetuates more violence, and a somber portrait of a family’s (and health care system’s) failure to give a young child the love and stability he so desperately needed.