The fact poses a big challenge to the film: how should a child molester be portrayed. Although what he has done is inexcusable, it becomes evident as the film progresses that it would have been a miracle if he had not ended up doing something like that.
Neglect is the keyword in Stevie’s life. His mother didn’t want him, forcing him to spend his life trying to win her love, torn between her and his step-grandmother’s internal hatred. Raised by his step-grandmother and at various foster homes and families, being abused himself, the road was paved for a criminal career, which in his case eventually led to abusing his eight-year old niece.
Director Steve James (Hoop Dreams, 1984) has a personal relationship to Stevie, as he was his ‘Big Brother’ from the time Stevie was 11 in 1982 till 1985. He returns in 1995 to see what has become of him – and to shoot a film. He realises that by leaving Stevie in 1985, he is one of the adults who has let Stevie down, and in addition to filming Stevie, he tries to regain his Big Brother role by seeking to influence him.
The film is full of ethical dilemmas that James handles by raising his own frank doubts in his voiceover. He asks himself if Stevie only approved of being in the film to spend time with him. In light of how Stevie strives for love from persons who have meant something to him, this was a likely motive. Raising doubts doesn’t justify them, of course, but the director concludes that the most important thing he can do for Stevie is be there for him after the film has been made, and I believe he is right. He obviously cares for Stevie, and rather than exposing a monster, his film gets people to see Stevie as the lost child he is, without ever trivializing what he has done, however. James manages to relate that abuse is complex, maybe best illustrated by Stevie’s aunt, the mother of the abused niece. Even though she wants Stevie punished and even though she feels pain because of what he has done, she actually understands how it could happen having witnessed Stevie’s upbringing – and being an abused child herself.
James’ personal involvement is crucial for the film. Besides the unique access, it gives another dimension to the director’s role in such a film. James actually involves his whole family, but is repeatedly confronted with having to limit his involvement. He won’t let Stevie spend the night at his house, for example, as he has daughters.
In Stevie, Steve James succeeds in tackling the difficult, delicate essence of child abuse subtly and masterfully and creates a complex, moving film.