Diane (2018, streaming on Kanopy) is, at first glance, a straightforward story of a woman (Mary Kay Place) who spends her time serving other people and worrying about her son Brian (Jake Lacy), who has been to drug rehab once and may need to go back. But the concrete solidity of her life starts to quaver as the film proceeds. Not only Diane’s sense of her life, but our sense of the film, becomes uncertain. She finds herself increasingly unmoored.
She and Brian mirror each other in several ways. Brian says that he is completely alone, though that is not quite true. Later, Diane seems to be alone, but there is always someone who refuses to let her fall completely. Brian is addicted to drugs; in a dream Diane remembers(?) using with an old boyfriend, whose absence is the ghostly presence that haunts her life. Both Brian and Diane have religious attachments, though of different kinds. As it often goes with parents and children, the needs of Brian and Diane seem to swap places as the movie goes on. Both have unresolved wounds inflicted by the other. Both have a need for confession to the other, and a need for forgiveness from the other.
But as the title indicates, this is not Brian’s story, but Diane’s. From the beginning, we see her spending all her time serving other people. She washes clothes for Brian, who is fully an adult. She helps out a friend with a ride. She visits her cousin in the hospital. She visits elderly friends and makes a meal for them. She serves meals to the poor, the homeless, and the otherwise in need. Is she doing all this to forget her singular failing, which she characterizes as a shadow that is always with her? Or is she doing it all to atone for her sin? Or, perhaps, because these people, unlike her son, allows her to serve and help them? Maybe her motivation, as it is for us, contains a little of all of these.
We tend to think of nostalgia as a positive remembrance of the past, wishing we could return to those days or that place. But the Greek roots of the word show us that sorrow or pain, or even despair, belong to its essence. It is, literally, a longing to come home, but with the recognition of the soldier on a hopeless battlefield that one is not likely to return. Diane, in her moments of stillness, as she begins to write poetry (although we get the feeling that the book of Emily Dickinson poems has been with her since she spent that summer “at the Cape” with Jess; perhaps it is a return to poetry), reflects on her life. There is certainly a positive sense of nostalgia for summery days of warmth and at least some version of love and freedom. But there is also the sorrow of harming people, mixed inseparably with whatever happiness she experienced.
Time is not an unambiguous friend, and it does not heal all wounds. In the film, time slips away much as it does in life: we barely notice that it has gone. All of a sudden this person has died, and now this person. How could the time have gotten away from us so easily? Where do the days go? Friends and family, in their own stories, slip in and out of ours. The crowded kitchen of family and friends begins to empty and the funeral bulletins pile up. Even so, there are small, unexpected mercies, such as Tom (Charles Weldon), who tells Diane that although he does not feel good about his life when he comes to have a meal at the shelter, when Diane serves him, he “feels sanctified.”
In the end, Diane herself—older than she should be, older than we expect her to be—is seemingly left alone. Her mind is betraying her, and perhaps her body as well. But even as she slowly slumps back, someone is there to catch her. The ending is not necessarily satisfying as a movie ending, but then lives rarely are. And maybe the best any of us can hope for is for arms to catch us and lift us toward the sky.