The title character in “Diane,” played by a wonderful Mary Kay Place, spends most of her time tending to the needs of others, a job that requires generosity, compassion, stamina — and a fair amount of driving. We go on some of those drives with her. The picture will quickly dissolve to a snow-lined road or highway before whisking her to her destination, whether it’s a house alive with the chatter of lifelong friends and family or a hospital room where a cousin who means everything to her is slowly expiring from cancer.
Those brief transitional shots reveal something of the western Massachusetts town where Diane lives, the steady accrual of back-and-forth mileage even within a small, close-knit community. They also reveal something about the methods of the writer-director Kent Jones, who takes a sentimental old maxim — the one about the journey mattering as much as the destination — and renews it with rare philosophical conviction and fresh eyes. His movie, a wise, captivating and continually surprising character study that won three prizes at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, knows the distances we travel, often alone, to become who we are.
Who is Diane? She’s a widow, a mother and a retiree, someone who goes about her tasks with good-natured grit and a quiet but unmistakable air of regret. More than anything, she’s a consummate vessel for Place, an actress whose sterling character work in movies (“The Rainmaker,” “The Big Chill”) and television (“Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”) should have earned her more leading roles this rich and beautifully layered by now. You may not encounter a more achingly human character in a movie this year.
Place commands nearly every frame with a kind of hard-bitten luminosity. Her Diane is a radiantly careworn soul and a natural-born worrier, which you may initially chalk up to the overwhelming nature of her circumstances. When we first meet her, she’s nodded off during a visit with her gravely ill cousin, Donna (Deirdre O’Connell), a mistake for which she quickly apologizes. It won’t be the last time she succumbs to exhaustion or asks for forgiveness.
But her fatigue doesn’t stop her from delivering a casserole to a friend (who naturally has a tray of food ready for her in return) or volunteering with an even closer pal (Andrea Martin) at a local soup kitchen. The camera lingers on hushed, intimate conversations and noisy, anecdote-strewn gatherings, all of which reveal how much strength Diane draws from her loved ones, the toughest and most dependable of whom are invariably women. (The cast alone, which includes the wonderful Estelle Parsons and Phyllis Somerville as two tough-and-tender relatives, reminds you that Place is hardly the only great actress working far too seldom in American movies.)
But all this kindness, which Diane has a harder time receiving than dispensing, can be a burden as well as a blessing. The story’s most acutely painful moments are those in which Diane is forced to make breezily vague small talk about her son, Brian (a savagely good Jake Lacy), who’s struggling with substance abuse. The others might not inquire so casually if they knew the truth. Diane’s toughest visits are those she pays to Brian in his squalid apartment, where it becomes frighteningly clear that his addiction is destroying his life and making hers impossible.
And if life is an impossibility, perhaps there is some consolation in the knowledge that it will one day be over. More than one character pauses to remind Diane of this eventuality (“You think we’re all going to live forever?”), and if those nudges seem a touch emphatic, it’s because the movie knows how easily the inevitable can catch us off-guard. Its own narrative, compressing several years into little more than an hour and a half of screen time, is expansive and unpredictable enough to ensure that not everyone we meet will make it to the end.
Jones, a film critic and programmer who serves as director of the New York Film Festival, has made several documentaries on directors including Val Lewton, Elia Kazan and Alfred Hitchcock. His first narrative feature has more than its share of cinematic antecedents, though the glancing thematic echoes of Paul Schrader, Yasujiro Ozu and Monte Hellman, among others, never feel obtrusive; they well up from within. At times I was reminded, surely by accident, of the thorny, contemplative humanism of Lee Chang-dong’s “Poetry,” and not just because Diane begins keeping a journal, transmuting her regrets and desires into the written word.
The poetry we see her reading and writing nudges the story toward a central theme of personal atonement, as Diane’s altruism turns out to be at least partially rooted in her anguish over a past betrayal. But reconciliation is a tricky, painful business, rarely as easy as the movies like to make it appear, and you suspect that the gift of total absolution — whatever that would look like — would neither fully comfort Diane nor begin to explain her.
In one brilliant scene, in which she engages in a long, drawn-out family argument about religion, my own inner Jesus freak didn’t know whether to wince at the movie’s ruthless skewering of a certain strain of evangelical Christianity or marvel at how accurately Jones had nailed the language of strident belief. Diane’s rebellion isn’t against God; it’s against the human selfishness and superiority that so often masquerade as concern, and also the one-size-fits-all thinking that would seek to diminish her heartache.
And the triumph of “Diane” is that the movie, no less than its heroine, refuses to be diminished. What looks at first like a solid, well-carpentered exercise in downbeat indie realism ends up, by dint of its unexpected tonal and temporal leaps and sudden formal ruptures, in less easily definable territory.
There are sudden, eerie dissonances on the soundtrack and equally sudden gazes heavenward. There are encounters of such unexpected, benedictory beauty that you may wonder, at first, if they’re mere visions or dreams. The most magical of these may be the moment when Diane, after a drunken bender, seems entirely alone and on the verge of total collapse — only to have a few of her closest loved ones materialize behind her, shouldering her weight so that they can bring her home.
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: Nuart Theatre, West Los Angeles