In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling writes "Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean it is not real?"
I thought of this quote often while watching writer/director Kent Jones's exceptional narrative feature debut Diane, a rather remarkable film that gives longtime acclaimed character actress Mary Kay Place her best leading role in, well, forever.
In Diane, Diane is a woman who has immersed every fiber of her being in an emotional prison of sorts, a rather sordid, sadsack sort of life where she's practically surrendered herself to being enveloped by tragedies that surround her including the seemingly inevitable demise of her cousin Donna (Deirdre O'Connell) from cervical cancer and the slow, painful journey of her drug-addicted son Brian (Jake Lacy). To top it all off, Diane's only escape from these daily tragedies seems to be her work alongside friend Bobbie (Andrea Martin) at a local soup kitchen.
Essentially, she's an angel who isn't particularly angelic. She does these right things, though they never quite feel like they're for the right reasons yet neither are they ever apparently for the wrong reasons.
Jones, a former film critic turned festival programmer turned documentarian, sets Diane in smalltown Massachusetts, an inkling provided that we're headed toward a cinematic journey through Americana before we begin to understand that Diane is actually much more.
The truth is that it's not hard to believe that Jones has led us down the same road that Diane herself travels on a regular basis, driving frequently being one of Diane's most vivid images, that of a woman who's fooled herself into believing that this life she's built based upon emotional confinement and inconsolable regret is actually something she lives with tremendous nobility.
Diane isn't a bad person. She's not a person to be pitied. She's simply a woman, not far removed from you or I on the human scale, who has taken the old tapes playing in her head and she's built a stark, quietly desperate reality through which they play over and over and over again.
Diane is a woman you can't help but feel strongly for, though it's more because she's not drowning in her own misery than because she resembles something tragic. If anything, she's frighteningly ordinary.
Yet, there's something about that ordinariness that feels familiar.
The feelings I felt in Diane were similar to the feelings I felt during the first half of Lars and the Real Girl, scenes in which Ryan Gosling's Lars has created a more extreme alternative reality for himself. It's a reality that allows him to deal with life and, to a much less unique degree, the very same is what unfolds here as Diane chooses what we'd probably call misery because misery loves company and because, as much as we may not be able to understand it, it doesn't make her feel miserable.
Sometimes, people stay in the familiar because it's safe, comfortable, and preferable to the risk of something else.
There are moments when we understand Diane's comfort.
We watch Diane relax into the woven tapestry of her family's life in familiar encounters, from stove-side chats between Ina (Phyllis Somerville) and Diane's mother Mary (Estelle Parsons) to a remarkably poignant, wonderful little scene in which an intoxicated Diane is rescued from a snowy parking lot by family members who merely do what they can to protect her. In many films, both of these scenarios would be dripping in histrionics and conflict, yet Jones wisely understands the underlying dramatic force underneath them and allows them to beautifully exist as, I'd guess, they would really unfold in life.
Diane is simply a beautiful film, a film in which Mary Kay Place's performance doesn't so much soar as it resonates within every fiber of our own being. She's found the core of the character Diane, it's not a core dependent upon dramatic heights but of limitless soul. The film is beautifully accompanied by Jeremiah Bornfield's sparse, emotionally barren original score and Wyatt Garfield's observational yet immersive lensing. While Diane is very much Place's film, both Jake Lacy and Andrea Martin also turn in remarkable, transparent performances filled with rich emotions and precious silences.
Easily one of the best films of early 2019, Diane is a remarkable narrative feature debut for Kent Jones and a film that will linger in both your heart and mind for quite some time after watching the film. Everything that unfolds on the big screen is so clearly and vividly borne out of that which has unfolded for years in Diane's head. Thanks to a remarkable, award-worthy performance from Mary Kay Place we never stop believing that the difference between what is fantasy and what is real is, quite often, simply what we believe.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic