Quiet and profound, Kent Jones‘ feature debut “Diane” tells the small-scale and moving story of a woman navigating through her tiny community of friends and family in rural Massachusetts. However, to be honest, the film is just the vehicle to show off the talents of underrated character actor Mary Kay Place. Jones, a staple of the New York film scene as programmer of the New York Film Festival since 2013, jumped into directing quite recently with a few TV documentaries. He has a co-directing credit on Martin Scorsese’s “A Letter to Elia” (Scorsese also being a producer on this film), and earned raves for 2015’s documentary “Hitchcock/Truffaut”, suggesting a highly versed cinephile. And if “Diane” begins a humble character study, it ends up being an acute exploration of a life, that takes more narrative chances than the film initially suggests.
In the first image we see of Diane, she’s asleep at a hospital bedside, spending time with her friend being treated for cancer. Diane’s first words being an apology for falling asleep. Her initial apology sets the stage for many of Diane’s interactions, as she navigates a complex relationship with her drug-addicted son Brian (Jake Lacy), just waiting for the moment when he overdoses again, knowing she is helpless. Outside of her son, Diane and her friend Bobbie (a wonderful Andrea Martin) spend time serving food at a homeless shelter together. If there’s one defining feature of Diane, it’s her hesitation to defend or even define herself against anyone.
Place, an actress who has been in everything from “The Big Chill” to “Being John Malkovich,” is given perhaps the most complex role of her career to chew on, and she absolutely owns the movie, portraying Diane’s reluctance to confront anyone. Jones, shooting often in medium or close shots, allows Place to dominate the frame, letting each scene play out in a naturalistic way. Lacy, given perhaps the biggest arc, plays his wide-eyed manic addict just short of cliche before transitioning into a more nuanced exploration of how one addiction is often replaced by another. A late scene between Place and Lacy lays into the trauma that both have suffered. But don’t expect any definitive closure in Jones’ humanistic approach.
What begins as an interesting, but still somewhat run-of-the-mill, character study turns into a profoundly moving exploration of loneliness in its latter half (more like last quarter, to be honest). Jones makes both narrative and formalistic leaps, which won’t be spoiled here, that initially are jarring in comparison to the lo-fi aesthetic that precedes it, but truly open the film up to broader implications about how we hold onto the past events and how they constantly resurface. Time jumps forward, characters are left behind and Diane retreats more and more into her self to confront what made her so passive and meek in the first place. It’s a bold choice for a first narrative but shows just how in control of his narrative Jones is. [A-]