James, who directed the acclaimed Hoop Dreams in 1994, takes as his subject here a young man named Stevie Fielding. When James was in college, he served as Stevie's Big Brother, then sought him out after Hoop Dreams' release. What he found, living in a bleak Illinois hamlet, was a human being about as messed up as it is possible to be. In his 20s, Stevie is jobless, feckless and has a rap sheet. He is also fat, slovenly and utterly unable to explain himself to himself or anyone else. Fairly early in the film he is jailed for sexually abusing his young niece, and though he denies it, everyone we see even the anguished James eventually comes to disbelieve him.
The doubters include his silent, perpetually angry mother, whom he volubly loathes (she abandoned him as a child); his stepgrandmother, who raised him when he was not in foster care; a sister, the film's most sympathetic figure; and a girlfriend with a serious speech impediment who is standing by her man. James becomes a figure in his own film, guilt ridden about his earlier abandonment of Stevie but still the only person present capable of offering him sensible, always unheeded, counsel as Stevie's case wends toward sentencing.
Stevie could cite extenuating circumstances. There is no doubt that he was sexually abused in foster care. There is no doubt that his essentially loveless upbringing created the seething sullenness of his nature. There is no doubt that all the social-service systems in which he was embroiled so early failed him. But his victimization does not make him the least bit sympathetic.
Is it exploitative to tell his story? One finally thinks not. He is surely representative of all our lost and abandoned. Can one recommend this unblinking film to the average moviegoer, out for a good time? Only in this way: if James and his crew can spend years with these blighted souls, surely you can spend two hours with them, exploring compassion's outer limits.