Mary Kay Place in ‘Diane’
Mary Kay Place in ‘Diane’

Diane takes care of everyone. Spending half her time traveling from one crisis to the next, she spends the other half trying to save her addict son from himself, while keeping watch over her cancer-stricken cousin and feeding the poor at a local soup kitchen. Upstate New York may be rural and rustic, but it’s certainly not short on problems.

As brilliantly portrayed by Mary Kay Place, Diane (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, April 5) is the sort of selfless person for whom ‘self-care’ is meaningless psychobabble. Somehow, writer/director Kent Jones (Hitchcock/Truffaut) ensures that her character never descends into maudlin caricature or brittle sainthood.

Jones’ narrative follows his heroine over several years, though the film’s chronological transitions – depicted as long, quiet highway drives – are seamless and indistinct. Time passes quickly but unevenly. Son Brian (Jake Lacy) falls back into addiction, cleans up and gets right with God, then decides a strict and literal interpretation of the Bible might not be the right prescription. Cousin Donna (Deirdre O’Connell) slowly fades away in her hospital bed; Diane’s best friend and reliable advisor Bobbie (one time ‘Second City TV’ regular Andrea Martin) makes a sudden and unexpected exit.

This is Jones’ first non-documentary feature, and it’s reminiscent of the kind of non-flashy, character-driven films that dominated 1970s cinema. Underscoring the ‘70s influences, nonagenarian Estelle Parsons (I Never Sang for My Father) is on hand as Diane’s imperturbable mother Mame, while Joyce Van Patten (Thumb Tripping) pops up as a family friend. There’s even a jarring and unexpected nod to John Avildsen’s memorable 1970 drama Joe.

Diane is the sort of role Ellen Burstyn or Joanne Woodward could have ridden to an Oscar nomination, and Place’s performance is on par with the best either of those actresses delivered in their heyday. You don’t want to miss it.

Emilio Estevez and Che (Rhymefest) Smith in ‘The Public’
Emilio Estevez and Che (Rhymefest) Smith in ‘The Public’

The Public (also opening at the Shattuck on Friday) is a silly but heartfelt liberal drama likely to annoy librarians as much as it will homeless activists. That’s probably what we should expect from the son of Martin Sheen, Emilio Estevez, who wrote and directed the feature, which demands a significant suspension of disbelief from its audience.

Estevez headlines as Stuart Goodson, a Cincinnati Public Library employee who finds himself in the middle of a civic controversy when he sides with a group of homeless men who refuse to leave the Library at closing time during a mid-winter cold snap. The city’s first thought is to call in a police negotiator (Alec Baldwin) to try and talk them out, while local DA and mayoral candidate Josh Davis (Christian Slater, playing the sort of smarmy character he’s spent the last 30 years playing) wants the cops to go in and bust some heads.

Estevez signals his support for progressive politics with references to the Connecticut Four and Mumia Abu-Jamal, but his absurd finale (which boldly suggests that every person in the world knows every word of Gamble and Huff’s ‘I Can See Clearly Now’) dodges the Strawberry Statement question: when given the opportunity, would the police ever be reluctant to bash a few heads?

On the plus side of the ledger, Che ‘Rhymefest’ Smith delivers a memorable performance as laser-eyed street person Big George. He also provided the excellent rap tracks that open and close The Public – ultimately, the most believable parts of this credulity challenging motion picture.

Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...