By Chuck Wilson
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Amy Nicholson
By Carolina Del Busto
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Michael Atkinson
By Calum Marsh
Few impulses in movie reviewing are stronger than the desire to pat the back of a worthy project. No surprise then that Jennifer Dworkin's years-in-the-making 2 1/2-hour portrait of a former crack addict and her HIV-positive teenage daughter inspired enthusiastic accolades on its New York Film Festival premiere; what's more remarkable is how much Love & Diane deserved them.
Can you be persuaded to see for yourself? From first shot to last, Dworkin's movie is a continuously absorbing, sometimes revelatory, frequently moving experience; as documentary filmmaking it's not only amazingly intimate but also characterized by an unexpected lyricism.
Dworkin evidently knew her subjects for some years before she began documenting their lives. The movie begins at the point where fortysomething Diane has managed to regain custody of her five surviving children and Love, the eldest of these, has just had her first baby, Donyaeh. That the infant was born HIV-positive is not unmitigated tragedy; his condition enhances the family's public assistance grant and enables them to leave East New York for a better apartment in Flatbush. The birth of the baby also allows Dworkin an emotional recapitulation of the family's history. When the generally upbeat Diane's grandmaternal instinct kicks in, Love becomes wildly jealous of little Donyaeh. Love's sense of deprivation is existential. She spent years in foster care, lived on the streets, and still feels guilty that, at age eight, she told school authorities that her mother was smoking crack.
Written and directed by Lukas Moodysson
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The relationship between the two women deteriorates; Love neglects Donyaeh and rages at Diane. Diane loses control and calls child welfare. Donyaeh winds up in foster care. (Too late, Diane wonders how they will pay the rent without custody of the child.) Love manages to get herself a lawyer to help get Donyaeh back. Thus, the family's internal dynamics are intimately bound up in the workings of the social welfare bureaucracy and subject to the rulings of family court. The ubiquitous presence of the filmmaker is but another aspect of the surveillance system.
Having prevailed over her own family history of alcoholism and abandonment, Diane is both articulate and self-aware in explaining her life; Love, who is very much her mother's daughter, uses the movie to vent a boundless anger. Her looks keep changing; her moods swing and her weight fluctuates. To a large degree, this is the drama of her struggle with self-knowledge against a complex backstory of abuse, violence, and neglect. In some respects, Love & Diane is an extreme example of a universal situation: Love blames her mother for her condition, refusing to accept responsibility. She resists her therapy, stubbornly clutching her symptoms. (At the same time, she is no less determined in her quest to regain Donyaeh.)
Throughout, Dworkin intersperses interviews and observational scenes with shards of Super-8 subjectivityfootage either shot by the principals or narrated by them. The opening image of a car windshield in the rain, accompanied by Diane's autobiographical voice-over, suggests that heaven itself is weeping. Rooted as it is in a specific milieu, the film has a cosmic aspect: Love recapitulates Diane's life. The passage of time is measured by Donyaeh's development.
It's illuminating that Love & Diane would follow Steve James's comparable Stevie into Film Forum. Both documentaries are epic, highly personal enterprises in which the filmmakers were for years entwined, if not embedded, in the damaged lives of their subjects; both are examples of cinematic social work. The relatively privileged filmmakers expose and dramatize the pathology of poverty, the cost of ignorance, the ongoing generational patterns of abandonment and abuse. The procedural precedent for both movies is Hoop Dreams, a study of two high school basketball prospects, which James made as part of a three-man collective. But while Love & Diane is enormously engaging, Stevie is a disaster, which is not to say that some won't find it fascinating.
If the self-effacing Dworkin is barely in evidence, James makes his own conflicted relationship with his subject central. Brave or foolish, Stevie is thus burdened with the filmmaker's own neediness and guilt. Worse, Stevie appears to realize that the entire basis of his relationship with James is making this movie. His misery has made him a star. Where invisible Dworkin (whose surrogate is perhaps Love's indefatigable lawyer) chooses to show Love and Diane using her film as their means of recognition, James's less expressive, more pathetic subject seems only able to communicate his yearning for any sort of attention.
As Stevie has committed a serious crime, his fate is already sealed. The only possible atonement is the filmmaker's. By contrast, Love & Diane is a more open-ended enterprise. (Will Diane manage to get a job? Can Love handle motherhood? Therapy? Has she really forgiven Diane?) What's more, Dworkin's film feels like a collaborative enterprise; her subjects are the authors of their lives. The struggle for redemption is hardly an uncommon movie story, but Love & Diane redeems that cliché as an ongoing process.
Abandonment is the central issue in Lukas Moodysson's Lilya 4-Ever. The movie's 16-year-old protagonist is left sobbing in the mud outside a dreary Estonian housing project when her single mom seizes a chance to escape with a boyfriend to America. Things can only get worse, and over the course of this unrelenting heart-wrencher, they do.
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