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Mary Kay Place has been in movies for decades, and somehow she never has had a leading role. In films like The Big Chill and Being John Malkovich, Place had a seemingly effortless naturalism. She did not show you she was acting, and while this kind of “character inhabitation” is in regular demand, it is rarely celebrated. Diane, the new drama starring Place, turns its attention to roles that avoid histrionics. While she is indeed brilliant and selfless, the film’s single-minded commitment to understatement is its undoing. Character actors often transition into leading roles, but the nature of said roles should evolve accordingly.

Diane positions herself as the pillar of her community. Everything she does, whether it is volunteering at a homeless shelter or visiting relatives at the hospital, involves her making some kind of sacrifice. Place plays Diane as a woman who is a dear friend/relative, although there is subtext to her being indispensable. In his narrative feature debut, Kent Jones unspools what motivates Diane, and why she takes so little time for herself. The first, more obvious culprit is her son Brian (Jake Lacy), who is a junkie. Maybe Diane feels like she failed as a mother, but as the film continues, we realize the answer is more complicated than that.

The best scenes in Diane are when she is not at the forefront of the story. There are lively, vibrant party scenes where Jones is content to let his characters laugh and trade stories. It is rare for any film to show such an organic, evocative sense of community. Detailed production design deepens that sense of verisimilitude, since the modest homes where the film takes place are bursting with shabby, worn decor that is still warm and inviting. These people are not your family, but the film conveys the sense they would gladly make room for you to have a seat at the table.

The smaller, more individual-driven moments are where Diane loses its sense of specificity. Sometimes Jones allows Diane an indulgence, like an awkward sequence where, in a fit of desperation and anger, she gets drunk at a dive bar. Most of the time, however, Place’s restraint undermines the desire to make a movie revolve around her character. Maybe Jones is too single-minded in his approach, since an ensemble drama would still allow time for Diane’s interiority. But by keeping almost all of the film from her point of view, the story spins its wheels. Jones prefers to have scenes fade in and out of each other, as opposed to more distinct cuts. These transitions create a dreamy quality, one that may test the audience’s patience.

Aside from Place, the cast is a who’s who of dependable character actors. Lacy is the most familiar face, and his frayed energy brings a welcome force to the film. You know that Diane’s moments with Brian will be uncomfortable, but at least they crackle with tension. Andrea Martin and Deirdre O’Connell play Diane’s friend and cousin, respectively, and they see through her in a way that invites the audience to look deeper. That’s part of Jones’ filmmaking strategy. These people have known each other for so long that they are too tired to fight, and the time for forgiveness is long gone. Jones doubles down on that notion with his sense of pacing: years unfold in the blink of an eye, and aside from various degrees of death/decay, it is surprising how little these characters change.

Like many filmmakers before him, Kent Jones is a former film critic. Prior to working on Diane and documentaries like Hitchcock/Truffaut, he was an editor-at-large at Film Comment magazine. Many critics become filmmakers because creating a new film can be its own form of criticism. In his remarks about Diane, for example, Jones says he wants to evoke older studio films because they “embodied and reflected a shared way of being that’s gone now.” Diane indeed operates on a level that’s no longer in fashion, but adds an unwavering shaggy dog quality that the best old movies (wisely) never inhabited. 

Diane opens Friday at Landmark’s E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row Cinema.