The first quarter of 2019 ends on Sunday, and I’m telling you straight and true that Kent Jones‘ Diane (IFC Films, 3.29) is easily the fullest and finest commercially released film I’ve seen so far this year. The most restrained and fittingly modest. Certainly the most recognizably human.
I wouldn’t call Diane trying or dreary — it’s not — but it certainly reminds you that life can be that from time to time, and that you really need to be tough and sharp just to survive in a rudimentary fashion, and that’s not even counting the guilt that’s been weighing you down for decades or your dicey, no-account, drug-addicted son who…no, wait, he’s a Jesus freak now. Never mind.
Comparing Diane to HE’s other big favorite, Dragged Across Concrete, is nonsensical as the cards they deal couldn’t be more different, but Jones’ film is still two or three notches ahead.
It’s one of those modest, drill-bitty, character-driven films that just reaches in and flips your light switch. It makes you feel human; it makes you care. I knew it was a keeper less than five minutes in. It has a 95% Rotten Tomatoes score, but why not 100?
The Oscar situation is always weighted against intimate, small-scaled films that open in the spring, but at the very least Diane is a guaranteed Gotham and Spirit Awards contender for Best Picture. And I can’t imagine Mary Kay Place, who plays the titular character, not being an all-but-certain contender for a Best Actress Oscar nom. Unless SAG and Academy voters take leave of their senses. Which is always a possibility.
Diane is really and truly the shit. Even if you’re a GenZ or Millennial who doesn’t want to think about what life will be like 35 or 40 years hence, it’ll still sink in. There are those, I’m presuming, who’d rather not settle into a simple Bressonian saga about the weight of responsibility and life being a hard-knocks thing a good part of the time. Or who’d rather not consider the existence of a 70-year-old New England woman who lives alone but has good friends, and who drives carefully, tries to do the right thing, works part-time in a homeless soup kitchen and has been coping with certain dark recollections for decades.
Diane is certainly a rural New England mood trip. Wake up, make the bed, shovel the snow, prepare the coffee, tidy up, get it done, visit your bum son. Late winter, melting snowdrifts, real world, limited income, older person blues, “being 70something is no picnic”, enjoy a drink now and then, my friends are dropping like flies.
All through Diane you can sense tragedy waiting to pounce, and you’re constantly preparing for a shock of some kind. Including the simple kiss of death. But it goes in a different direction.
I know that Place has been working all along, but the last time I said “whoa, she’s extra-good in this” was when she played Orson Bean‘s hard-of-hearing secretary in Being John Malkovich, which was 20 years ago. Before that it was her Meg Jones performance (i.e., the no-boyfriend single who wants to get pregnant) in The Big Chill. She’s certainly never played a lead role as substantive as Diane. So there’s your Best Actress narrative — MKP played supporting characters all her life, and then fortune smiled when Kent Jones came along.
I’ve known the New England realm since my teens, and Diane is as real as it gets when it comes to “I went to sleep dreaming life is beauty, but woke up knowing life is duty.” I know that tune backwards and forwards. My younger brother died of an Oxycontin overdose, and I’ve known druggies who’ve cleaned up by flipping into religion (drugs or God, they need a crutch) and I’ve known a few older women who resemble Diane in this or that way.
And it’s all in this one film, the whole magilla, the whole chilly-ass weather vibe, the whole Connecticut or Massachusetts or Maine feeling of cold mushy woods and trees without leaves. Doing necessary errands, schmoozing with old friends in someone’s kitchen, visiting another friend who’s dying of cancer….all of that.
Over and over I visited my parents in their assisted living penal colony in Southbury, and years of doing that really had an effect. New England itself can feel like a penal colony between November and April.
Near the end Diane slips into a memory-trip dream sequence that throws you a bit, but that’s the only discordant note.
The supporting cast couldn’t have delivered in a more honest or unaffected way. Jake Lacy‘s unstable son (at times restrained, at other times a hair-trigger asshole) is the stand-out after MKP. The film delivers a roster of 70something actresses from the New York theatre realm — Deirdre O’Connell, Estelle Parsons, Glynnis O’Connor, Joyce Van Patten, Phyllis Somerville, Andrea Martin, Danielle Ferland, Celia Keenan-Bolger.
Diane was shot in only 20 days. Mike Selemon‘s editing is brilliant — the cutting is so sharp, perfectly timed, exactly right. Wyatt Garfield‘s lensing is, as you might expect, subdued and amberish and just right for the material. Jeremiah Bornfield‘s score blends in so smoothly that I didn’t hear it. I know this sounds weird but I’m delivering a kind of compliment.
Until catching Diane I’d thought of Jones as a top-tier documentarian (Letter to Elia, Hitchcock Truffaut) who also runs the New York Film Festival. This is obviously a step up the ladder. Hats off.