In Diane, the 70-something title character ends up at a small-town bar, weaving unsteadily in front of the jukebox, in a way that suggests she’s drunk, or suffering from dementia or — best case scenario — not an accomplished dancer.
The bartender, who’s not taking any chances, picks up the phone and calls for assistance. No more tequila, he tells the waitress.
Diane (Mary Kay Place) is sober enough to be slightly offended.
“I used to be a regular.”
It’s a line that goes to the heart of Diane, a movie about used-to-bes.
Diane is starting to feel her own mortality, living in a town that’s seen better days, looking in on a dwindling roster of friends and family who comprise a way of life that will die when they do.
That sounds depressing, and the movie might hit some people that way, but the tone (as engineered by writer director Kent Jones) is one of heartfelt elegy, and the movie exists to quietly celebrate the kind of a woman who goes uncelebrated in our culture.
Kent made the movie as a tribute to the women who raised him in rural Massachusetts (set in the foothills of the Berkshires), and they are determined, loving, flinty, fearless, complicated, and worth knowing.
We first see Diane standing watch, with a kind of tender resolution, at the bedside of a terminally ill cousin (Dierdre O’Connell), until she leaves to look in on her son (Jake Lacey) — a chore that her friends (Andrea Martin) regard with embarrassed silence or a knowing roll of the eye, because he’s a junkie, and 30, and she’s still bringing him cooked food and clean laundry.
She’s past worrying if she’s an enabler, and talks frankly of the futility of her actions, which she now looks upon as extended funeral preparation for a kid who may effectively be gone already. When that’s out of the way, she goes to the soup kitchen, dishing out mac and cheese to people who no longer have enough money for food.
Diane is sometimes guilty of spelling things out, but not often, and mostly we have the rare pleasure of listening to what is unsaid. There was a factory here, and now it’s gone, and so are most of the young people, and so are most of the men, done in by whatever toxic by-products came with the good jobs that kept the families fed and the houses repaired and cars gassed up.
And people like Diane, who used to be regulars, keep on. There’s a scene of neighbors (most over 60) gathered around a table, where the elliptical conversation speaks to mingled histories. Somebody’s child climbs into Diane’s lap, and she puts her hands on his tiny shoulders, the way she surely used to touch her son when he was young and full of promise.
In a less subtle moment, an elderly gent says that helping Diane, and being helped by her, makes him feel “sanctified,” and there is the danger here of positioning Diane as some kind of saint. Kent pulls back from that, offering a backstory that reveals Diane as fully human, with all of the faults that come with it. Even her margarita binge suggests something she might have bequeathed to her son.
The way Diane imparts this information is daring and to my mind entirely successful — at the movie’s midpoint, there are startling changes to the way the story is told, marked by abrupt leaps forward in time. The effect is of a rush of impressions that contribute to the movie’s poetic feel, and to its sense of what awaits Diane and her little town as it slowly empties of the people who gave it shape.
Pulling us through all of it is Place, who imbues her character with a touching persistence, and gives striking depth and dimension to this “regular” woman, who used to be a regular.
Diane. Directed by Kent Jones. With Mary Kay Place, Jake Lacey, Andrea Martin, Estelle Parsons, and Dierdre O’Connell. Distributed by IFC Films.
Running time: 1 hour, 36 mins.
Playing at: The Ritz at the Bourse, Bryn Mawr Film Institute.