Diane is a humble character study that contains vast depths of observation.
Critic and programmer Kent Jones’s narrative debut, Diane, is a humble character study that contains vast depths of observation. Its eponymous figure (Mary Kay Place) is a widow entering her senior years, though age has scarcely slowed her down when it comes to helping others. Whether visiting her terminally ill cousin, Donna (Deirdre O’Connell), in hospital or working in a soup kitchen, Diane exhibits a den mom kind of benevolent omnipresence, seeming to canvass her small town looking for neighbors and pals to help.
Diane immediately gives off a vibe of rural charm of the sort that people vaguely allude to when waxing nostalgic about an era that never truly existed. Her kindness is never naïve, and at times it is backed with a dose of tough love, never cruel but often with a hint of challenge to those she perceives as freeloading rather than genuinely needing. Diane can also display a sharp sense of humor when she wants to. Her wit comes out most readily with her friend, Bobbie (Andrea Martin), with whom she likes to go to restaurants that they both cannot stand but love to bitch about; in one hilarious scene, Diane rants about her terrible meal to Bobbie, only to respond “Tremendous” with her tongue so firmly in cheek it threatens to break through the skin when the server comes around to ask how the food is.
Yet for all her altruism and affability, Diane struggles to contain herself around her drug addict son, Brian (Jake Lacy). Visiting her son, Diane finds his home in total squalor, with his girlfriend so strung-out that she introduces herself, to which Diane says, “Yes, Carla, we’ve met many times,” with witheringly insincere pleasantry. All of her charm disappears around Brian, whom she castigates for his stagnant, dangerous life. Lacy, for his part, plays Brian with realistic unpredictability, portraying the man as hapless and addled but possessed of rapid-fire self-justification and a sense of shocked entitlement. Eschewing the heavy drama and symbolic obviousness that so often weighs down depictions of addiction, Lacy plays up the banal fact that addicts are often just downright annoying; Brian reacts to his mother’s tough but fair criticisms like a child, huffing and ranting while talking a mile a minute as he outpaces his own brain in thinking up excuses for why he is talking so fast and living in filth if he’s not using. Jones takes this view of addiction as a colossal energy drain even further when, later in the film, Brian attempts to get clean and takes the 12 Step program to heart and becomes a born-again Christian, at which point his drugged ramblings turn into sanctimonious judgment and a false sense of purity.
Diane’s reaction to Brian’s conversion drives much of the film’s latter half, and at times the film dips into full comedy as Diane deals with her child. Initially, Brian’s arrested development inadvertently makes his mother seem younger; with him nearly 30 but still acting like a delinquent teen, Diane comes across more middle-aged than elderly. It is only when Brian gets clean that she starts to slow down and show her age, her sprightly wit cooling into the crabbiness of the old. In the film’s funniest scene, she goes to a dinner at Brian’s home with his new, equally zealous wife and a church friend of theirs, all of them speaking with robotic piety as Diane looks on, mortified. Her own vulgarity kicks off an argument that escalates as mother and son start to allude to respective grievances, though buried within Diane’s calling out of his hypocrisy and holier-than-thou attitude is a hint of bitterness that, outwardly, he now seems more put-together than her.
The twisted yet relatable dynamics of moral superiority and martyrdom that inform Diane and Brian’s relationship is funny, but it also starts to expose family secrets that Diane has not exactly kept hidden but also pointedly observed discussing. Latent pangs of resentment ripple throughout the film, not merely between Diane and Brian but also with Donna, who at times picks fights over a point of strife with Diane, only to lie back on her sickbed if her cousin takes the bait. At one point, Diane snaps, asking if Donna really forgave her for what happened between them. Donna affirms that she did but still presses the subject as it suits her until Diane finally spits, “So I guess that’s why you keep starting fights and then saying you don’t have the energy to fight them.” Waves of resentment and grace ebb and flow throughout the film, including a late conversation between Diane and Brian that is shocking in its quiet, frank confession.
Yet the film’s most moving attribute may be its approach to aging and death. In an early conversation with Bobbie, Diane confesses that she is already mentally preparing for Brian’s funeral from an overdose, but in reality, the deaths that will come sooner are those of her friends. Jones introduces a number of older characters at the top of the film, nearly all of whom have the same cheery disposition and can-do attitude as Diane. A recurring theme is the refusal to accept one’s age, at least until one’s body takes that choice away. Donna’s lengthy hospital stay notwithstanding, death springs up on people here, with a sudden cut forward in time marked by the mention of a passing or a funeral with an ever-dwindling number of attendees. Diane is a rare film to not merely foreground older actors and characters but to impart on them the dignity of their position in life without being maudlin about it; together, elderly characters are sharp-tongued and willing to be selfish without coming across as caricatures. The characters all make deep impressions, and their abrupt absences from the frame sting more than extended farewells. For all the humor and drama of the film, Diane captures the bleakness of getting old, of not knowing day to day how much longer you have with those you love, to say nothing of your own inevitable expiration.