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 delayed-secret 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 then-preteen 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 red-state 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 old-school 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.