Steve James is best known for Hoop Dreams, the overrated documentary that took three hours to demonstrate the unsurprising proposition that some kids who want to become NBA stars don’t make it. The director’s Stevie, made with co-producers Adam Singer and Gordon Quinn, is less schematic and more personal. In fact, it’s partially fueled by James’ ambivalence toward both his subject and his own film. Like the Hoop Dreams kids, Stevie Fielding was born with few advantages. Abandoned before birth by his father and soon after by his mother, Stevie was abused emotionally and physically as a child; it’s impossible to say if he was born mentally retarded or his brain was damaged during the beatings he sustained as a baby. While a graduate student in the mid-’80s, James volunteered as Stevie’s Big Brother—a task he found overwhelming. After moving from southern Illinois to Chicago, the documentarian didn’t contact his volatile former charge for a decade. James filmed Stevie briefly in 1995, then went to work on another project; when he returned two years later, Stevie had been accused of a shocking crime. James simultaneously tracks and guides his subject’s life, taking him to visit former foster parents and inviting him to Chicago. On the latter trip, James’ wife, a social worker, seems better equipped to deal with Stevie than her husband does: James allows the “self-medicating” Stevie to get drunk and disorderly at a nightclub, and he has difficulty balancing his roles as advocate and biographer. To be comprehensive and fair, the director must film Stevie’s sister, grandmother, mother, aunt, and “kind of disabled” fiancée, yet he worries that the young man feels betrayed by some of these interviews. Although it’s a little baggy, the film is fascinating and utterly uncomforting; pop psychology has never seemed so useless as when one of Stevie’s failed benefactors counsels him to “start making some good decisions.” At various times, Stevie is accepted by an evangelical church and the Aryan Brotherhood, yet he is ultimately alone. Stevie is a disturbing portrait of the American individualist at his most hapless and heedless. —Mark Jenkins