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In The Bleakly Beautiful 'Diane,' Mary Kay Place Can't Help But Keep Helping

Mary Kay Place is a flinty New Englander with a grown son she can't help but help, in <em>Diane</em>.
Mary Kay Place is a flinty New Englander with a grown son she can't help but help, in Diane.

In his first narrative feature, Diane, the critic and documentary filmmaker Kent Jones (Hitchock/Truffaut) comes in praise of older women, the crankier the better. The troubled New England woman at the center of his drama seems at first to embody a familiar type: the fussy old enabler without a life of her own. But Jones proves a loving, if clear-eyed world-builder who invites us into the orbit of a woman muddling through a complicated life, rather than peddling a tactfully edited "senior" identity.

It's a world he knows with intimate particularity. A fictional composite of the women who peopled Jones's childhood in the Berkshires, Diane (Mary Kay Place) is lined and worn and unobtrusive, the kind of older woman to whom you probably wouldn't give a second glance on the street. But though I can think of other actresses who would do credit to the role of an invisible woman with a seething inner life — Annette Bening or Kathy Bates, for starters — no one can drab down her physical self while projecting inner tumult quite like Place. As the over-involved mother of a drug-addicted grown son, the actress projects a bewildered resignation that slowly escalates into impotent rage.

When she's not driving the wintry back roads of New England to deliver casseroles to sick friends, Diane is a textbook enabler who can't stop herself from stocking up the fridge, the coffers, and anything else that her son, Brian, can't or won't manage for himself. For his part Brian (ably rendered by Jake Lacy, whom you might have seen doing something altogether different as a wholesome love interest in 2015's Obvious Child) remains vocally ungrateful for services rendered, to the point of calling his mother a sexual organ. You may sympathize a little: His mother has the classic enabler's habit of railing at her son even as she continues to baby him into sullen paralysis.

This is Diane's story, though, and with a bleakly beautiful sense of place and a moody score, Diane slowly and with strategic repetition builds her a rich inner universe and a vibrantly testy community of friends and family. She can't stop serving them either, but though hers may be a grim existence, the tone is far from glum. Jones's crisp dialogue is at its mordantly funniest when Diane gets together with the friends she's known forever (it would spoil the fun if I named the movie's terrific vintage female ensemble), a bunch of witty, fractious storytellers reliving their collective past, roaring at their own bawdy jokes, robustly dredging up old grudges — and falling into tactful silence when Brian's name crops up.

Again and again, Diane shows up in her son's chaotically filthy den. Over and over, she is rebuffed or extorted until, at last, something happens to shift the neurotic power nexus that keeps this symbiotic pair unwillingly joined at the hip. Toward the end of Diane, a secret is aired (without resorting to flashbacks) that turns out to mask a bigger reveal that involves Diane's guilt over a long-ago perceived sin. Its fallout has spread like a malign ink stain through both their lives, stunting the ability of both to move ahead.

Brian will set Diane straight about her errors of judgment, but this isn't the kind of movie where insight sends mother and son into a rosy sunset. "This time's different," a cleaned-up Brian insists, and you'd be right to murmur "maybe" under your breath. But the fundamentalist church that keeps him sober can never bring solace to a skeptic like Diane. Instead, Jones fills her existential space with a bracing, though never unfeeling, inquiry into what it feels like to confront the steady drip of accumulating pain, and loss, and no longer being needed as we age. If that makes Diane sounds like a heaping pile of misery, it's anything but. But look for no spurious closure here, unless you count the one sure outcome we all face.

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Ella Taylor is a freelance film critic, book reviewer and feature writer living in Los Angeles.