‘Diane’: A mother’s reck­on­ing, beau­ti­fully de­tailed by Mary Kay Place

The Tribune (SLO) - - Ticket - BY MICHAEL PHILLIPS

It’s harder than it should be to de­scribe Kent Jones’ “Diane” in a way that makes it sound dis­tinc­tive or spe­cial, which it is.

It’s eas­ier to say how lovely it is seeing Mary Kay Place, whom many have been nuts about since “Mary Hart­man, Mary Hart­man” in the mid-1970s, as she eases into a leading role at once dom­i­nant and in­trigu­ingly re­ces­sive.

She plays the ti­tle char­ac­ter, a small-town rebel who has paid for her younger risks and re­wards, but not yet in full. For a while in Jones’ nar­ra­tive fea­ture di­rec­to­rial de­but, work­ing from his own script writ­ten with Place in mind, we ex­pe­ri­ence the daily rou­tines of Diane, who lives alone in a tight-knit community full of ex­tended family and old friends. (Jones filmed in New York State; he grew up in Pitts­field, Mass., in the Berk­shires.)

Diane lives alone but fills her days with vol­un­teer work. She puts in steady hours at a lo­cal community cen­ter kitchen, serv­ing those in need, along­side her dear­est friend (An­drea Martin). She pays reg­u­lar vis­its to her dy­ing cousin (Deirdre O'Con­nell) in the hos­pi­tal. She drops in daily on her grown son (Jake Lacy), who has a sort-of girl­friend. We learn early on in “Diane” that her son has been through re­hab for drug ad­dic­tion. And now, he ap­pears to be us­ing again.

Jones han­dles that part of his sce­nario straight­for­wardly, while with­hold­ing or sneak­ing in other as­pects of Diane’s story. It’s not a de­layed­se­cret af­fair, ex­actly; Jones doesn’t amp up the big re­veals. Rather, we hear about Diane’s cir­cum­stances, old and new, through nat­u­ral-seem­ing bits of con­ver­sa­tion. In between games of gin rummy, her bedrid­den cousin nee­dles Diane about some­thing that hap­pened between them, in­volv­ing Diane’s then­pre­teen son, some 20 years ear­lier.

Through­out, Place re­mains at the cen­ter of most scenes and many in­di­vid­ual shots, but she’s of­ten quiet and watch­ful enough to in­di­cate an in­ner un­ease – about her son’s health, about the guilt she has lived with for two decades There are some con­trived mo­ments, as when an old ac­quain­tance at the community shel­ter (Charles Wel­don, who died last year) tells Diane: “When you serve me, I feel sanc­ti­fied.” The main char­ac­ter’s dilemma is clear and in­ter­est­ing enough with­out lines like that.

Can an or­di­nary, flawed per­son’s good works make up for a self­ish, long-lin­ger­ing mis­take? Is love ever truly a mis­take? As we glide through the years with Diane, Place’s char­ac­ter sorts through these ques­tions, writ­ing in her notebook, try­ing out a line or two of a new poem. Place is su­perb. She grows more and more ex­pres­sive as the movie does, with­out an ounce of ex­ter­nal “in­di­cat­ing.” Diane doesn’t suf­fer fools gladly, and since the very be­gin­ning of her ca­reer, Place’s comic in­stincts have been mar­velous. All the same: In “Diane,” you believe these peo­ple as small-town cit­i­zens, per­haps slightly or heav­ily at odds with many of the neigh­bors. (In code, I won­der if Jones is sug­gest­ing the plight of the blue-state out­lier in red­state ter­ri­tory.)

The writ­ing’s terse, in­sight­ful, rhyth­mi­cally nat­u­ral. The di­rec­tion is nearly up to the same level. Jones and cin­e­matog­ra­pher Wy­att Garfield keep the set-ups un­ob­tru­sively sim­ple, though Jones has a touch­ing fond­ness for old­school slow dis­solves. Con­trar­ily, Jones and ed­i­tor Mike Sele­mon never quite cut when you ex­pect, to the film’s ben­e­fit. “Diane” runs a nicely com­pressed 90 minutes, but it’s gen­uinely in­ter­ested in all its side char­ac­ters, al­low­ing them an ex­tra sec­ond or two in close-up, lend­ing us a fleet­ing but new per­spec­tive on a given scene.

Place is won­der­ful. But every­one else is, too. It’s a wel­come change to see a movie de­signed for ac­tors but pri­mar­ily ac­tresses in their 60s, 70s, 80s and, in the case of Estelle Par­sons, early 90s. “Diane” af­fords Martin, Par­sons and com­pany the chance to do hon­est, low-keyed work with ma­te­rial worth the ef­fort. While it re­mains to be seen if Jones is a born di­rec­tor or merely a good, solid crafts­man be­hind the cam­era, find­ing out, I sus­pect, will be re­ward­ing ei­ther way.

IFC Films

Mary Kay Place stars as the ti­tle char­ac­ter in “Diane.”

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