“Diane” is a movie about an individual life and, also, life itself. Writer-director Kent Jones and the superb actress Mary Kay Place bring these two elements together with warmth and depth.
Jones, a film critic and documentarian (“Hitchcock/Truffaut”) making his fiction-feature debut, combines mundane material with big-picture themes, including death, in this character study opening Friday at the Embarcadero.
The setting is rural Massachusetts. Place plays Diane, who, at the age of about 70, is battling a different biological clock than the actress’ “Big Chill” character.
A churchgoing retiree and do-gooder, Diane is constantly driving here and there to visit those whose burdens she might ease. She plays cards with her hospitalized, terminally ill cousin, Donna (Deirdre O’Connell). She volunteers at a soup kitchen. She brings casseroles to friends.
Diane also regularly checks in on her drug-addicted, jobless grown son, Brian (Jake Lacy). Putting up with his verbal abuse, she struggles, fruitlessly, to help him.
We learn that Diane herself is troubled: Years ago, she committed an indiscretion, and guilt still plagues her. Are Diane’s acts of altruism attempts at atonement?
Emotionally drained by her guilt, Brian’s addiction and the distressing number of funerals she’s been attending, Diane crumbles.
In the film’s later innings, Jones leaps forward in time. We see a more isolated Diane, her support circle having dwindled. Brian has a new addiction, religion.
The drama becomes abstract and somewhat surreal as Jones combines the everyday with the meaningful and touches on the cosmic.
The tonal shift can feel jarring. Clarity suffers somewhat.
But “Diane” is a beautifully made and exceptionally acted portrait of a woman at the point on her path where she starts seriously considering how her life has turned out. Beneath the surface of this modestly scaled film, Jones deeply and compellingly explores issues ranging from redemption to memory to aspects of death, including people’s tendency to think it can be staved off by living in the present and rushing about purposefully.
An effective dramatist, Jones eschews contrived expository dialogue and instead reveals details about Diane’s past through organic discourse. He doesn’t dilute the strength of the narrative by interrupting the story with flashbacks.
Finally getting the plum role she deserves, Place (“The Rainmaker,” “Manny and Lo”) is commanding and nuanced. Whether the flawed but decent Diane is enjoying dinner-table camaraderie with friends and family, or getting drunk, dancing to a Leon Russell jukebox selection and falling apart at a bar, or treating the diners at the soup kitchen warmly, she is fascinatingly human.
Lacy brings needed humanity to the exasperating Brian. “I taught myself to disapprove of you,” Brian tells Diane in a moving reconciliation scene. This sharp line says much more than any tear-jerky speech.
Andrea Martin, playing Diane’s chatty chum, and Estelle Parsons, as the ailing Donna’s mom, also merit applause.
Three and a half stars
Starring: Mary Kay Place, Jake Lacy, Deirdre O’Connell, Andrea Martin
Written and directed by: Kent Jones
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes