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Diane is the sort of movie that Douglas Sirk would have directed in the 1950s—a “women’s picture,” so to speak, that centers on a female character and her trials and tribulations, often in a domestic context. (A Simple Favor is another recent movie that left a similar impression on me.) While Diane’s writer-director Kent Jones works in a more muted manner than the colorful, dizzying heights of Sirk-ian melodrama, the bones of that kind of story are still there (as are retro flourishes like the slow cross-fade effect between several scenes). 

Diane (Mary Kay Place) is a kind, elderly widow who lives to serve her community. She does what she can for others, whether it’s working in a soup kitchen or providing companionship for a cancer-stricken cousin, with gentleness and without complaint. When the power goes out in a soup kitchen, she’s the one who keeps her head and lights candles. But Diane’s drive to do good is at least partially derived from an ugly, festering place inside her, a guilty wound that will not heal. There’s also the matter of her son Brian (Jake Lacy), who struggles with drug addiction and refuses to accept her help; their conversations are shot through with frustration, resentment, passive aggression, and avoidance of the real issues lingering between them. Diane is basically counting down the days until he overdoses, and so she’ll play the role of everyone’s mother since her own son has rejected her attempts.

If the fact that Diane has a horrible secret from her past weren’t included in the film’s basic synopsis, Diane’s downright saintly behavior would undoubtedly clue us in to the fact that she’s certainly not perfect—that the other shoe is going to drop, because no one is that good all of the time. And drop it does, but in subtle ways derived from organic conversation between characters, rather than cliched, dramatic confrontations marked by screaming and throwing things. There are confrontations about the thing that Diane did, but they’re always grounded in realistic emotion and naturalistic acting.

Still, though, depending on her level of Brian-related or cousin Donna (Deirdre O’Connell)-related stress on any given day, there are moments when the facade of patience cracks—when the real Diane sneaks through to the surface. We see flashes of it in Diane’s discomfort in talking about Brian in mixed company, and her eagerness to immediately deflect the conversation away from what she sees as a failure. After innumerable visits, Donna and Diane’s camaraderie melts over a game of cards and they finally address the elephant in the room of Diane’s past transgression. Diane’s reaction is defensive and not a little petulant. “When are you gonna let me off the hook, huh?” she demands in a whisper. “You’ve been hanging this over my head for years and I just wanna know for once and for all: do you forgive me or not?” “I forgave you, but I haven’t forgotten,” Donna replies, her voice like rocks scraping together. Diane desperately wants to be be someone who didn’t hurt her cousin and her son, but all she can do is perform goodness as a kind of repentance. She can neither forgive herself, nor forget.

When Brian goes from passive-aggressively rejecting her help to calling her profanities in a drug-induced rage, Diane shows that she can dish it out as well as take it, calling up a ferocity you wouldn’t have connected with such a gentle-seeming person. When a fellow volunteer at the soup kitchen scolds someone for taking too many helping, Diane grabs her arm and all but throws her against the wall, her disgust palpable, her outburst honestly kind of refreshing to watch. In order to hang all this kindness and generosity on herself, after all, she must have an armature of steel. 

Mary Kay Place is receiving well-earned praise for the role, and she’s supported by a strong cast and production team. Jake Lacy is neither the jilted boyfriend of Carol nor the impossibly sweet love interest of Obvious Child: he’s far more nervy, with hurt feelings towards his mother that are easily triggered. Deirdre O’Connell is haunting and riveting in her hospital bed, relying on Diane and Agatha Christie books for company while refusing to let bygones be bygones. Andrea Martin appears as Diane’s honest, blunt friend Bobbie, serving as a source of strength for someone who is so relied upon. Kent Jones, primarily known as a film critic, clearly understands what makes a good story and how best to tell it. There’s not a false note in the movie, a point where you might think: “oh, no one actually would say that.” Jeremiah Bornfield’s melancholy score enhances the mood of the film, especially the piano pieces used towards the middle and the slightly discordant, echoing chimes that seem to serve as Diane’s musical motif. 

Diane feels remarkably lifelike; the characters look and talk like actual people, and there’s not much plot or contrived action for them. Indeed, there are sections of the movie that sag with their slowness and lack of dialogue. Not everything can be happening all of the time, after all. In one of the film’s best scenes, when Diane goes to visit a group of relatives, they sit around the kitchen table, the conversations flowing and hiccuping around one another, coming together and breaking apart into side digressions and reactions. 

The true high point, though, comes in a scene later in the film, when Brian (having disappeared earlier in the film), comes back clean, born again, and extremely eager to proselytize at her. Diane, Brian, his wife, and their friend sit around the table, Diane going from amusedly tense to boiling over as Brian tries to wheedle, then bully her into being “saved” before bringing up Diane’s transgression as a weapon. The rhythm of the editing and dialogue is perfect, and it’s clear that Mary Kay Place is totally invested in creating Diane as a fully-developed human character, whose faults and good qualities mingle together in unexpected ways. When Brian comes to her house at the end of the film, drunk and feeling honest, it’s the first time we’ve seen mother and son showing their true selves to one another. She’s not performatively modest or driven to screaming extremes, and he’s not trying to preach at her or guilt-trip her. Their conversation about that terrible thing Diane did in the summer of 1999 ends with a very realistic sense of catharsis, and, hopefully, a new understanding between them.

Top photo via IFC Films / Diane

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Deborah Krieger is a freelance arts and culture writer and nascent art/media historian and curator. She can be found at www.i-on-the-arts.com and on Instagram @debonthearts.

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