Underrated character actress Mary Kay Place has finally been given a contemporary showcase for her naturalist gifts in Kent Jones’ Diane. As the eponymous protagonist, Place tells a personal story of sublimated grief in a vacant suburban setting. Diane lives quietly, visiting dying relatives and volunteering in a soup kitchen between check-ins with her addict son Brian (played by Jake Lacy). She is as modestly expressive as Place’s other creations, but it’s the deep rooted and unreconciled emotions beneath her sacrificial actions that make the film and the performance something precious to behold.
A humble film indeed, Diane’s focus is on mortality, both the lifespans of our relationships and the waning bodies that contain us. Most of the people Diane calls upon are dying at different speeds. This decaying suburban landscape is plagued with various illnesses of spirit and body – cancer, fundamentalism, open secrets. Death however, is only a single piece of Diane’s mounting isolation, making this a portrait of the emotional desolation of caregiving. While the film feels initially casual, it rings with intensity as it further reveals itself to the audience.
But the film’s forefront is Place giving stark humanity to such unwaveringly bleak themes. As the film paints unceremonious life and even less ceremonious death, the actress fascinates throughout with a physically acute performance. Her responses to Diane’s struggles all have the weight of inevitability in her eyes, her resigned posture, yet Place also crafts a mounting sense of grim self-awareness. The film relies heavily on the kind of realism that Place can deliver, and she rewards the spotlight with heartbreaking minutiae.
Former film critic Jones delivers his narrative feature debut here in a familiar vein of American character study, but also takes unique structural risks as the film enters its final act. In this regard, he crafts a film to match the tides of his protagonist’s life as she lives it. There is the perfunctory labor of her routine met with sudden offhand brutality as her aging circle grows smaller, and her ability to absolve herself drifts further out of reach. What begins simplistically, even monotonous, ultimately evolves into something where the defining characteristic is the unexpected and the removed. Like death, Diane is too indiscriminate to be called cruel, but it is quietly vicious.
The film is a brief but taxing one, a reflection on the differences between spiritual and physical death. While the film isn’t always the most confident balance between grounded reality and the poetic, Kent Jones arrives with an exciting perspective on how we live our lives and the things we won’t let go of.