The documentary filmmaker is perhaps the least celebrated of those that ply their trade in the movie business. Rare is a documentary film that achieves more than a modicum of success in financial terms, and even the most celebrated of documentary efforts in recent decades would not have been viewed by even the most avowed film buffs.
"Hoop Dreams" was a film that simultaneously managed to achieve the status of celebrated film-making effort and utter financial success, a combination that has rarely been equaled in the years since its release. Yet this does not mean that the maker of "Hoop Dreams" has been resting on his laurels. Steve James continues to pursue his calling with a commitment and attention to detail that garners only the most limited of rewards for the extreme lengths of time that must be spent in achieving compelling documentary.
The release for which James has been toiling is that of "Stevie," a heart-wrenching personal story that was pursued by James for reasons that seem genuinely to be altruistic in helping a fellow human-being. The "Stevie" of the film's title does not refer to James himself, but to his former Little Brother, an eleven-year old kid nicknamed Stevie who is now a grown man in his twenties. James took Stevie under his wing during the 1980's, at a time when James was attending college and felt a calling to try to lend his support to a troubled young boy near his home.
As so often happens, and despite his best intentions, James lost track of Stevie in the ensuing years, despite feeling a sort of responsibility to learn what happened to his Little Brother, and knowing that the likelihood was for Stevie to continue down a rather hopeless path. As James reacquaints himself with the younger man, his worst fears are realized – Stevie has had repeated troubles with the law, his interpersonal relations and his relationships with his immediate and extended family are a mess, and Stevie realistically has no hope towards success and happiness in occupation or in life.
Taking the role that he effectively abandoned years past, James once again becomes Stevie's Big Brother, inserting himself in Stevie's adult life, all the while traveling with a camera person in order that he might record the results of the interaction. While the situation would appear to be highly exploitive at first glance, James manages the remarkable of conveying a truly genuine interest and concern for Stevie while recording it all for the world to see. This is perhaps Steve James' most unique talent – the ability to make a documentary not a forced production, but as sincere and genuine in its approach as could be imagined with the presence of a perpetual camera in the room.
Throughout the film, James wrestles with the course of action that he is undertaking, engaging in train-of-consciousness introspection as he evaluates his integrity, his motivations, and his ability to help Stevie, knowing full well the neediness of the troubled man. It is James' obvious sincerity that makes "Stevie" such compelling viewing, and endears the viewer both to its subject character and lends an appreciation to the travails inherent to Stevie's state in life. The story is at once tragic, hopeless, and inspiring – we lament Stevie's lot in life and the near-impossibility of extracting himself from it; yet unlike most any other form of film, we feel inspired to help the contingent of Stevie's that surround each and every one of us. If Steve James' effort inspires even a handful of people to become a Big Brother, whether formally or in spirit, I am positive that he would consider his latest work of passion to be a success.
Rare for a documentary film, video on "Stevie" is presented in a 1.85:1 widescreen format. Director Steve James has cut his film-making teeth in the documentary genre, and manages to balance a sense of grainy reality with crispness in his imagery. The video polish that James lends to his film very much parallels the true-to-life portrait of one man's life that he paints. "Stevie" is neither overproduced, nor unreasonably lacking in video quality – the film finds a delicate balance in the story that it has to tell and the special effects that might otherwise detract from the film.
Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo Surround sound. The choice of a two-channel presentation for the documentary is a typical one, and sound is sufficiently clear on "Stevie" to make the choice an appropriate one. The subject character of the film tends toward a soft-spoken presentation on occasion, and James manages to pick-up even his quietest moments. The subtlety of the comments often give the largest impact, and the microphone makes sure that we miss nothing in the translation.
"Steve" includes a full production commentary, a worthwhile inclusion for students of documentary film-making, and even for those who simply want more background as to the subjects of the film. Steve James is one of the top practitioners of his craft in America today, and his comments present a sort of tutorial as to the nuances of documentary film-making. The DVD also includes a considerable amount of "Unused Footage" that was cut from an already lengthy film for obvious constraints of length. However, the deleted material is of high quality as well, and the scenes actually add a great deal to the documentary. Watching each and every extra scene is worth the additional time and effort.