Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Trying not to be crushed by time and loss

Mary Kay Place gives a terrific performance in Diane.

These women know each other -- not in some faux movie way that depends on winking wisecracks, but in the way of women who've grown old together in the same small Massachusetts town and who no longer have secrets from one another. When the women gather in someone's kitchen, the men understand that they’ve been relegated to the background. These women weave the threads that hold lives together, although they also understand that these same threads inevitably will wear thin and fray.

They may know they're fighting a losing battle, but they're smart enough to sneer at the odds.

Named for its central character, Diane focuses one of those women. Diane (Mary Kay Place) has hit a bad patch. Her cousin (Deirdre O'Connell) is in the hospital dying of cervical cancer; her addict son Brian (Jake Lacy) interrupts his drug-induced catatonia with bouts of fury; and her best friend (Andrea Martin) has heard Diane's lamentations so many times that she's running out of patience. But then, Diane has begun to lose patience with herself, too.

Director Kent Jones, whose previous work includes the documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut, makes his fiction feature debut with material he seems to know well. He's helped by a superb cast that also includes Estelle Parsons as the mother of the dying woman, a no-nonsense lady who can be both wise and forgiving.

Like almost everyone in the movie, Diane carries plenty of emotional weight, and it takes almost the entire movie to discover what gnaws at her soul. But that doesn't mean that the journey toward this revelation isn't effective in its own right. Place's terrific performance, the evocation of atmosphere and the authenticity of its setting make Diane a marvel of cinema calibrated to reflect the agonies of ordinary life.

A few quibbles: Jones' tendency to divide various scenes with images of what Diane sees as she drives through the countryside become redundant. The story also strains a bit when Diane's son immerses himself in an evangelical zeal that he shares with his born-again wife (Celia Keenan-Bolger). It’s part of his fight against addiction.

Even here, though, Jones manages to add complexity. As much as she's relieved to see her son sober, Diane can't tolerate his attempts to make her see the light. She's too smart and cynical to want salvation -- if this is the way it must be attained. She'll stick to her own path.

The driving, if overdone, may be intended to show us that Diane, who volunteers at a local soup kitchen, can't sit still. She seems to be fighting against some awful sense of guilt; she makes lists of things to do, ordinary tasks that might be taken as her way of putting one foot in front of another. She pushes on.

Diane sounds like a downer, and, in some ways, it is -- unless you find the prospect of characters living with a heightened awareness of mortality and squandered hopes bracingly real. But what elevates Jones' movie is something that's far too rare in movies: a belief that if one throws aside the desire to fudge, it's possible to say, "This is how some of us live."

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