Diane fills her days helping others and desperately attempting to bond with her drug-addicted son. As these pieces of her existence begin to fade, she finds herself confronting memories she’d sooner forget than face.
Cinema certainly doesn’t lack grey-tinged, granola-themed portrayals of life in Smalltown, USA, wherein universal, resonant themes are examined through the prism of its inhabitants. Bolstered by a stellar central performance, writer/director Kent Jones’ debut feature Diane manages to stand out from the crowd, quietly seeping its way under your skin. Here’s a film that starts off on shaky footing but then stabilizes as it (very gradually) progresses, until it not only finds itself firmly grounded but also performing a careful balancing act, both narratively and thematically.
“When she’s not begging Brian to go back to rehab, Diane works at the soup kitchen and visits her terminally-ill cousin…”
At first glance, Kent’s film is a simple story of Diane (Mary Kay Place), a single, aging mother of the drug-addicted Brian (Jake Lacey). When she’s not begging Brian to go back to rehab, Diane works at the soup kitchen and visits her terminally-ill cousin at the hospital. As her closest friends and family pass away, Diane becomes more and more introverted, reminiscing about her guilt-ridden past. The film then boldly takes a narrative leap forward: the stakes have turned, with Brian sober and married to a nice religious girl – and now he’s the one convincing Diane to join his church, as relentlessly as she tried to get him to quit drugs.
“This is love, mom,” Brian tells his mother over awkward lunch. “Love is when you don’t give up.” Or perhaps love is knowing when to give up? Diane examines many themes without making any firm statements, which imbues it with an alluring, existential depth missing from most similar fare. Nothing is black-and-white: Does Diane delve into charity work to redeem herself for a past sin, and if so, does that render her kindness selfish? What constitutes a “sin?” Do we let the memories that haunt us dissipate or allow them to build up until we break under their pressure? What’s the difference between drug addiction and blind faith in the Bible, if both stem from trauma and neither provides redemption for a fragile, broken soul?
“…things are revealed subtly, and sometimes left unsaid…”
Jones slyly builds momentum: his film begins in static, medium-to-long shots and ends with jerky close-ups; things are revealed subtly, and sometimes left unsaid – but the weight of them is felt deeper and deeper, like spirits applying pressure to closed-off doors. Tiny moments singe and resonate: friends help a drunk, teary Diane gets home; a game of cards turns into a raw discussion of a tremulous past. Kent is not afraid to tackle grand themes, such as appreciating life in the moment and recognizing your mistakes (“I taught myself to disapprove of you,” Brian says to Diane in a touching moment).
No wonder that cinematic auteurs like Martin Scorsese and Oren Moverman produced Diane. It brings to mind films like Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count On Me, produced by Scorsese, or Moverman’s Time Out of Mind (which also dealt with memories, identity and the limits of human compassion). Jones may lack a little of the former’s humor or the latter’s visual artistry, but perhaps it’ll come later. The hard skills are all here.
Diane (2019) Written and directed by Kent Jones. Starring Mary Kay Place, Jake Lacy, Estelle Parson, Andrea Martin.
8 out of 10