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'Diane': Mary Kay Place Faces the Big Chill

The star of 'Mary Hartman' and 'Big Love' excels as a haunted do-gooder boomer

Rating: R

Run time: 1 hour 35 minutes

Stars: Mary Kay Place, Jake Lacy, Deirdre O’Connell, Estelle Parsons, Andrea Martin

Writer/Director: Kent Jones  

Mary Kay Place, 71, gets the role of a lifetime in Diane, the engine of New York Film Festival director Kent Jones’ character-driven, Martin Scorsese-produced study of a woman who has become a supporting player in her own existence. It’s a bold choice in contemporary American films, to put a postmenopausal woman on the verge of a polite nervous breakdown at a downbeat drama’s center. Because Place, best known as the single businesswoman desperate to conceive in The Big Chill, has such a warm and genuine touch, Diane’s story is one of late-day awakening rather than one long stretch of kvetch.  

The script meanders through a series of modestly dramatic events as Diane drives her battered sedan from one errand to the next through frigid, rural wooded Massachusetts. The roughest comes when she visits her only son, Brian (Jake Lacy). She totes his laundry to his chilly crash pad. When he shambles out of the bedroom, he’s equally unkempt and resents his mother’s “helpful” intrusion.

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Brian’s an addict, and she scans him with her gimlet eye, trying to assess if he’s using again or just tired. It’s so hard to be a mother helpless to heal her once-beautiful child. It’s clear, through script and direction, that this is a dance they’ve been doing for ages, long after Brian should have taken control of his own life. “Take a shower and get cleaned up,” she nags in frustration. The ruts in their relationship — the hopes and disappointments of a mother who has seen her beloved son relapse, and who sees before her both the boy and the cracked man he has become — are heartbreakingly rendered.

Add another wrinkle to Diane’s face.

The do-gooder continues on her circuit: delivering casseroles to neighbors experiencing rough times, heading to the soup kitchen to ladle stew for the less fortunate, and visiting her terminally ill cousin Donna (the incandescent Deirdre O’Connell, 67) at the hospital. The pair radiate a long, comfortable kinship that transcends blood.

Diane and Donna have spent their lives sitting across from each other, playing cards, kibitzing and advising — and avoiding addressing a personal betrayal perpetrated by Diane that continues to gnaw at her. Diane is good — warm, caring, community-spirited. But she’s not as good as she might have been if she hadn’t made one big mistake she has regretted all of her life.

Watching Donna wane, along with their close-knit family’s elders, Diane belatedly realizes that all the consoling of others will not heal what’s cracked within her. Diane gets trashed at a bar for locals. She boogies down and, seemingly, rekindles the spark that she has lost, the joy in the moment. It has been a long time since she has loved herself, if she ever did, and there’s a glimmer of hope. There’s still time for Diane to star in the movie of her life.