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.
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 subjectivity—footage 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.
Lilya (the fresh-faced Russian actress Oksana Akinshina) is betrayed and brutalized throughout—by her family, her friends and neighbors, the social welfare system, and every man she meets. She is also deserted by the deity in whom she has a childlike trust. Or rather, she is nearly deserted—the only comfort God grants her is the company of a glue-sniffing, dim-witted 14-year-old guardian angel named Volodya (Artion Bogucharski). His job is to remind Lilya that, however foredoomed, “this life is the only one you’ve got.”
Making his first movie outside his native Sweden, Moodysson conjures up a convincing milieu of post-Soviet wreckage. Of course, Sweden—once Lilya finds her way there—is even more dehumanized. But although Lilya is a bummer, it’s no documentary. The viewer is asked to take on faith that a mother could so casually throw away a child as seemingly well appointed and cared for as Lilya. The movie would have been more naturalistic with a plainer actress, but since Akinshina is in every scene, it would surely have been less commercial. (The movie nods to Bresson’s Mouchette, but Moodysson, amply aware of his actress’s jailbait appeal, contrives a suggestive comparison between Lilya and Britney Spears.)
As demonstrated in his teenage drama Show Me Love (a/k/a Fucking Åmål) and hippie commune comedy Together, Moodysson is an empathetic director of kids, with a particular interest in outcast children. Show Me Love and Together were a bit sentimental for my taste; the brutally overdetermined Lilya demonstrates that he can go to the other extreme. Forget Irreversible, this is the season’s most piercingly feel-bad movie.
Adam Sandler ropes a whole new constellation of stars into his orbit with his latest, Anger Management. Sandler’s typically traumatized schlemiel is too timid to publicly kiss his adoring girlfriend (Marisa Tomei) or stand up to his exploitative boss, but thanks to a series of bizarre coincidences, he attacks a flight attendant (off-screen) and is sentenced to 20 hours of anger management training. The other participants are choice: Luis Guzman’s Latin queen, John Turturro’s psychotic vet, and a pair of porno stars convincingly played by January Jones and Krista Allen. The therapist is Jack Nicholson, a satanic Zen master whom, even if you had never seen another movie, you might suspect is hiding a secret heart of gold.
Nicholson’s unconventional methods include forcing Sandler to stop rush hour traffic on the Queensboro Bridge and serenade irate commuters with “I Feel Pretty.” He also fixes up his unwilling patient with such humiliating sex partners as Heather Graham’s barfly and Woody Harrelson’s German she-male, and compels him to confront his childhood tormentor (John C. Reilly), now a Buddhist monk. Winding up in Yankee Stadium, Anger Management is consistently wacky and sometimes nearly surreal. The free-associational lurch of the enigmatic Nicholson 12-step program is set to a familiar backbeat of juvenile gross-out and homosexual panic; what’s truly illogical is the blithe conflation of anger management and assertiveness training. It’s all therapy.
To the degree that one feels the U.S. might benefit from a national course in anger management, the movie—directed by Peter Segal from David Dorfman’s screenplay—can be read as a chaotic allegory. “This is a very difficult time for our country” is the in-flight mantra. The billboard for something called “An Army of One” looms over Sandler’s apartment. Turturro is a veteran not of Vietnam but our painless conquest of Grenada. And Rudy Giuliani is called upon to insure a happy ending.
“A Talk With Love & Diane Director Jennifer Dworkin” by Laura Sinagra
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 15, 2003