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What a pleasure it is to see an undersung treasure of the American acting profession given a leading role she can fully inhabit. That’s the case with the wonderful Mary Kay Place as the title character in Diane, breathing backbone, fine-grained sensitivity, layers of subsumed hurt and resilient warmth into a part that in less resourceful hands might simply have melted into the wintry landscape. In his melancholy character study set in a close-knit community in rural Massachusetts, writer-director Kent Jones also surrounds Place with a deep pool of veteran female acting talent, drawing heavily from the New York stage. The resulting film feels highly personal, tender yet unsentimental.
Even without reading the director’s notes there would be no mistaking that the women who dominate almost every scene — not just widowed Diane, but also the knot of aunts, cousins and old friends around her — are fondly observed versions of people with whom Jones grew up.
That makes this not at all the move into fiction one might have expected from a filmmaker whose background is primarily in cineaste documentaries like 2015’s Hitchcock/Truffaut — in addition to being programming director of the New York Film Festival since 2013. The approach here is spare and unfussy, suggesting a kind of humbled respect in the way it accesses these ordinary lives and their no-frills milieu centered on home and family.
Fatigue is etched across Diane’s face in the opening image of her being gently roused from sleep by a hospital bedside. She has nodded off while visiting her cousin Donna (Deirdre O’Connell), who’s slowly succumbing to cervical cancer. It’s significant that when we first encounter Diane, she’s apologizing.
Still, despite her exhaustion she gets back in her car and drives along the snow-skirted roads between towns, delivering casseroles to sick friends, serving meals to the homeless and checking in on her extended family. That group of scrappy, good-humored women seems permanently stationed around the kitchen table, with the men and children hovering in and out of view. Diane only really seems to exhale in these brief moments, or while grabbing a bite at the cheap and cheerless local buffet joint with a chatty friend (Andrea Martin), who doesn’t hold back in listing her gripes.
Diane’s life seems entirely devoted to the needs of others, suggesting that she’s either a saint or atoning for some perceived transgression. The anxious questions about how Brian is doing, and the look of pained resignation that transforms Diane’s features each time she hears that name, convey that the chief source of sadness in her life is her son (Jake Lacy). She thanklessly delivers clean laundry and meals to the filthy apartment he shares with his girlfriend, urging him to go back to the rehab clinic while he defensively reassures her that he’s just rundown from a lingering bout of bronchitis.
As Donna and others keep telling her, only Brian can help himself, and Diane waits in tightly wound agitation for a call to inform her he’s dead. Brian is angry, resentful and ruthless in his willingness to bounce the guilt back onto his mother; the role taps into a different part of Lacy’s range than we’ve seen up to now in most of his film and TV work. The actor’s preppy wholesomeness makes the sight of him completely fried on dope, struggling to form a coherent sentence to a stricken Diane, all the more wrenching.
Although the drama appears to be veering toward devastating tragedy, it makes a graceful turn instead in a more contemplative, interior direction, reflecting on time and memory. The story is not without its share of death and sorrow, but these are handled with restraint, as a part of the natural passing of the years and their inevitable losses.
From snatches of conversation with Donna, and later Brian, we learn the sin that Diane carries with her. As her circle diminishes, she’s left in brooding solitude, dipping into Emily Dickinson and keeping a journal of her thoughts. When she finally does receive a kind of forgiveness, it’s not in a big speech that offers healing catharsis, but in keeping with the spirit of the film, it’s an awkward reconciliation, leaving much unsaid.
There are lovely, understated rewards throughout in Diane’s interactions with the people in her life, whether it’s a delicate scene with a regular at the homeless food program, the reprieve of a game of cards with Donna or a chat about religion with a wry old aunt. That latter discussion spins out of a clash between Diane’s spiritual beliefs as a lifelong churchgoer and those of evangelical converts eager for her to embrace “the light of Divine revelation.” Some of the film’s most heated conflicts revolve around that disagreement.
There’s not a false note among the cast, but I particularly liked O’Connell’s balance of flinty, no-BS fortitude with pissed-off rancor; Estelle Parsons as her correspondingly take-charge mother, a tough old bird of the most dependable kind; and Phyllis Somerville as Diane’s Aunt Ina, the last of a breed, chugging away on cigarettes while slowly expiring from emphysema. The ties connecting Diane to these women are drawn with unforced poignancy, as is the sense that it’s the women in these families who shoulder the burden of holding everything together.
Composer Jeremiah Bornfield’s gentle score is used with pleasing economy, and the introspective mood is enhanced by the jukebox sounds of Bob Dylan and Leon Russell in a bar where Diane momentarily buckles under the emotional weight bearing down on her. Wyatt Garfield’s textured cinematography is so muted, with its soft winter light and somber interiors, that if you think back on the movie a day later, it plays in your head in black and white — settling on the image of Place’s face as a woman who has sacrificed her life to shame and regret, yearning for well-earned peace.
Production companies: Sight Unseen, AgX
Cast: Mary Kay Place, Jake Lacy, Deirdre O’Connell, Glynnis O’Connor, Joyce Van Patten, Phyllis Somerville, Andrea Martin, Estelle Parsons, Danielle Ferland, Ray Iannicelli, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Charles Weldon, Marcia Haufrecht, Barbara Andres
Director-screenwriter: Kent Jones
Producers: Luca Borghese, Ben Howe, Caroline Kaplan, Oren Moverman
Executive producers: Martin Scorsese, Julia Lebedev, Eddie Vaisman, Leonid Lebedev
Director of photography: Wyatt Garfield
Production designer: Debbie DeVilla
Costume designer: Carisa Kelly
Music: Jeremiah Bornfield
Editor: Mike Selemon
Casting: Jodi Angstreich
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Narrative Competition)
Sales: ICM Partners
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