As a film critic and as a maker of documentaries about filmmakers, Kent Jones has steeped himself in the best of world cinema and remained engaged with it for years, and so the surprise of his first narrative feature as a writer-director, “Diane,” is that there is barely a trace of influence from other films or other directors.
“Diane” is a character study about an older woman played by Mary Kay Place, and it is an unusual, elusive, windblown sort of movie, always twisting and turning and moving in different directions. Whenever “Diane” seems to settle down for a moment to let us comprehend something about the lives of its characters, it jumps ahead or sideways or away from us; as in life, our understanding of what is happening and what it means keeps shifting. The tone here is elevated and a bit difficult sometimes, but the end point of all this difficulty is transcendent, and then something beyond even transcendence.
Place’s Diane is first seen asleep in a hospital room, with her dying cousin Donna (Deirdre O’Connell, “The Path”) watching over her. Diane is there to help Donna die, basically, but it is Donna who is there at the beginning to bless Diane with some attention, and that reversal is typical of this movie. Diane is shown as a conscientious woman who is always making lists and visiting her friends and family, most of whom are physically ill in some way; she is barely ever seen at home. We never do find out what she once did for a living, and we only hear about her deceased husband in passing.
But we learn a great deal about Diane’s tortured relationship with her son Brian (Jake Lacy), who is a drug addict. At first, it appears as if the very selfish Brian never looks outside of himself and that Diane spends a somewhat inordinate amount of time helping others, and “Diane” seems to be getting at a difficult subject here.
There have been many movies about having detestable parents, but comparatively few films about having a detestable child. In many ways, having a detestable child is a far worse fate, because it’s relatively easy to reject hateful parents and almost impossible to reject a hateful child. But this is actually not what “Diane” is ultimately interested in.
When Diane goes to see some elderly family members and friends all huddled around a table in a kitchen, we can feel just how much comfort she takes in their presence because Jones switches to a much faster editing style with quick cuts that makes for a contrast to the scenes of Diane by herself, which begin to rely on dissolves to show how she is losing her grip on her life.
Place has often been cast as a best-friend character on TV and in movies, and Diane is a best-friend type, on the surface. But as this movie goes on, we begin to realize that Diane hasn’t always been like this. “Diane” is a very insightful film about old age because it acknowledges how many different people a person can be throughout a long lifetime, and it’s a lucky person who isn’t ashamed of some of those younger variants of themselves.
This movie changes somewhat drastically when we see Diane go to a bar to get drunk because her awful son has gone missing. With a few drinks in her, we see a different Diane, an earlier version who liked a good time and wasn’t as hard on herself. She starts to dance by the jukebox, but then her drunken high spirits crash down low as we see her sitting at a table while the 1991 hit “I’m Too Sexy” plays, a piece of pop detritus that incongruously bobs back to the surface.
Will Diane ever hear that song again, or think of it? Will we? There’s a randomness to that silly old song coming on that points up the deliberate untidiness of this movie, its refusal to look away from moments that might not have any meaning.
Though she has obviously had a lot of drinks, Diane’s voice sounds clear and calm as she asks for another, but the waitress thinks she has had enough, and she is basically told to leave the bar. “I remember you, Diane,” the bartender tells her. In that one line, we can hear a reaction to this other person Diane used to be, and we can sense that maybe she wasn’t too unlike her own son when she was younger.
There comes a point when Jones does briefly quote another director here. Diane starts keeping a journal, and there’s a section of this movie where we see what look to be her favorite moments from her past. These short shots are clearly an homage to the fleet-footed visual style of Terrence Malick, a filmmaker that Jones has praised in the past. But Jones ultimately has a far tougher point of view than Malick. The thing that’s so unsettling, finally, about “Diane” is that it stresses the formlessness of life.
Diane’s brown hair goes white. We hear her voice on the soundtrack, and she is wondering if she left the stove on, and if she took a pill she needed to take. If we get to be old, we are probably not going to be thinking about the best sex we ever had, or a poem we loved. When we are old and still clinging to life, our thoughts can rest on the small things that suddenly seem so important, like if we left the stove on, or if we took our pills.
“Diane” is not easy to take sometimes, but it never lies, and the performances from all the actors here tell the truth, too. Jones has always been unusually attentive as a critic when it comes to how much acting can affect or influence a movie, and so “Diane” is about many things, but it is also a movie about Mary Kay Place and her “Are you kidding me?” facial expression and what caused that expression.
This is a movie that notices things and people that we are trained to ignore, and you are not likely to forget it, even as the life of its heroine finally drifts away from her like a kite lost on a winter beach.