Diane is a character study of a woman whose selflessness just seems too good to be true. The title character, played with the most astounding kind of quiet power by Mary Kay Place, spends her entire life taking care of others: cousin Donna (who spends all her time in the hospital slowly succumbing to cancer), various elderly couples and visitors to a soup kitchen (where her friends also help out). As if this weren’t enough, she is also engaged in a constant, futile battle to save her drug-addict son Brian (Jake Lacy) from himself.
Diane may appear to be a consummate carer who finds a kind of fulfillment in putting others before herself, but writer-director Kent Jones (Hitchcock/Truffaut) doesn’t allow her to be so easily categorized. She is not a pushover or anyone’s fool, and has little patience for self-pity or BS in general — including Brian’s. She sees right through his excuses and attempts to justify himself. Even as her friends repeatedly tell her she’s done all she can, she keeps trying to help him, often while constantly apologizing for herself to those around her.
Clearly there’s another reason for the selflessness that borders on compulsion. Just what that reason is builds slowly, as the various pieces of the life Diane has built begin to collapse, and memories of the summer that has haunted her begin to return. Her sins are known to all and seem to have been forgiven, but one dream sequence indicates that most probably don’t know their true extent.
As the film goes on, it becomes less a meditation on Diane’s life and the nature of life itself, which inevitably takes more and more from those who live it, until we are finally taken ourselves. How we cope with that shapes much of our lives, and for a film that focuses so much on death, funerals for the friends and family Diane does lose are rarely shown. For Jones, destinations don’t seem to be nearly as important as journeys.
Even when those journeys seem resolved, they still continue — as indicated in Brian’s story, whose life remains complicated even after he manages to get sober. Religion becomes his chosen method of sobriety, but his brand of it seems little more than another drug from the beginning. His church is full of muttering, swaying people losing themselves in ecstasy, and Brian and his new wife openly pray for Diane to see the world their way, pressuring her to go to church and follow their path to salvation.
Jones infuses all of this with a kind of graceful, low-key realism that sometimes veers into the depressive. Diane has a refreshing lack of easy answers or conventional realizations, and many of the performances have the kind of indie sensibility where actors add years to fleeting minutes, indicating a kind of layered history that continually unfolds in the short time they have the screen. Too much of a good thing can also lead to a yearning for the lighter things in life, those laugh out loud moments where one isn’t confronting mortality, aging, and life’s lack of closure. Even quiet power such as this needs room to breathe.