Mary Kay Place delivers moving performance in character-driven ‘Diane’

A woman sits in a car and stares at the steering wheel with an expression of dismay.

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Grade 4.0/5.0

Many films attempt to explore the lives of middle-class Americans with sincerity, detail and gravitas, but rarely are they as subtle and poignant as “Diane.” Kent Jones, who wrote and directed the film, does not shy away from the deeply depressing truths of life and death. He begins with just the gentle sound of a beeping hospital monitor over a blank screen, but then chooses to make the first frame one that portrays Diane (Mary Kay Place) as she is slumped in a chair, exhausted. Her cousin, Donna (Deirdre O’Connell), a woman dying of cervical cancer, looks at Diane with concern — as if she, instead, is the one with a terminal illness. But her cousin’s concerned facial expression reflects that of an audience member as they experience Diane’s commitment to caring for others even when it becomes a detriment to herself.

Mary Kay Place hits every beat as the titular character, a 70-year-old widow. She lives in a small town in rural Massachusetts where the neighbors all know each other and lovingly exchange casseroles. They all go back decades, but aging is difficult and takes a toll on them, causing them to not be as close anymore. Diane, however, is dogged in her dedication to help others before herself. She spends her days bringing over cooked chicken dishes for her neighbor, staying by her dying cousin’s side and volunteering at the soup kitchen. She tries to do it all with a smile on her face, but audience members watch as her smile fades away and it all becomes too much for her to handle.

Her son, Brian (Jake Lacy), is someone who she cannot seem to help despite her repeated efforts. As a 30-something-year-old with an excessive substance abuse issue and no job, he has lost hope of improving his own life. Despite Lacy’s somewhat unconvincing performance as an addict, the dialogue’s layered nuance provides exposition while remaining ferociously present. While Place is in another league in terms of her acting, both actors manage to play off of each other in a particularly confrontational, emotionally intense scene where Brian insists to Diane that he is not on drugs. In this scene, despite her better judgement, Diane so badly wants to believe him — so she does.

Everyone else in her life always come first for Diane, but her intense internal struggle comes to the forefront as she is haunted by her past. She is on the search for redemption and resolution by any means. The film is deeply depressing as it deals with very weighty topics, those that do not often get a sensitive spotlight in the film industry, such as depression and addiction.

Jones shows plenty of promise, however, as a first-time dramatic feature filmmaker. His long-time reverence for cinema and admiration of great filmmakers shines through as he directs with precision and is patient with his characters.

There is an intense melancholy to “Diane,” but the film manages to remain very much alive. As aging and death are a focal point of the story, Jones reminds the audience that old people are just as youthful as young people, only with wrinklier bodies. The aging process does not alter a person’s mind as much as a person’s body and Jones’ film explores that complicated tragedy.

Mary Kay Place’s remarkable, anchoring performance allows for Jones to craft a subtle, moving film around it. Although it is a slow-paced film, Jones’ patience and precision make for a profound, cathartic release. Jones’ ability to clearly see people and all of their flaws, yet most importantly their humanity, allow for the film to be a uniquely earnest portrayal of aging middle-class Americans. The experience of aging is not a simple or easy one, but “Diane” gives a glimpse into the turmoil of it all.

Contact Julia Mears at [email protected].