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An ordinary reckoning

Tulsa native Mary Kay Place shines in award-winning film

Mary Kay Place in “Diane”

Winner of last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, “Diane” doesn’t so much tell the story of its title character as much as it walks in her shoes. Keenly observed rather than meticulously plotted, its slice-of-life episodic realism employs the subtlest of metaphors.

Take, for example, the opening. Diane, seated in a chair, has dosed off. She awakens suddenly, startled, subconsciously blurting out “What’s wrong?” That moment, we come to see, succinctly represents the current state of her daily malaise and unsettled soul. So does Mary Kay Place’s deeply personalized performance.

A quintessential character portrait, this debut narrative from documentarian Kent Jones (“Hitchcock/Truffaut”) follows an upstate New York retiree who, as she enters the third act of her life, finds herself at an existential crossroads.

The script, also by Jones, is a loose assembly of scenes, though not random ones, from Diane’s small town routine. Each follows a sequential trajectory, driven by a defining characteristic: Diane helps everyone except herself.

Whether bedside with her cancer-stricken cousin, serving meals at the local church soup kitchen, visiting family and friends in need, or checking in on her drug-addicted adult son with some clean clothes and tough love, Diane is always giving but rarely resting.

Yet for all of her generosity, volunteerism, and self-sacrifice, a sense of purpose still eludes her. During her drives between various acts of regimented kindness, we see the face of a woman who’s exasperated and lost, drained rather than fulfilled.

For Diane, giving of herself seems to be a way of avoiding herself. Deep down she’s not dealing with her past, ignoring regrets instead of confronting them. Initially, these regrets aren’t made known to us. When they are, Jones references and reveals them in organic ways rather than big, dramatic ones.

This approach feels more realistic, more honest. Our burdens, no doubt, are often like Diane’s, so ingrained and deep-seated that we take them for granted, or dismiss them outright, firmly believing we’ve moved on, not cognizant of the dysfunctional problems they’ve actually become.

That’s because those burdens can be carried in ways we don’t even recognize, not expressed through obvious self-destructive habits or dependencies. For Diane, her life of charity and service—though completely sincere and heartfelt—is her Freudian compulsion toward penance.

Those closest to her can see this, or sense it. In one of Diane’s most vulnerable moments, a cancer-stricken cousin (someone who’s also tied up in one of Diane’s biggest regrets) has to reach out to her, take her hand and say, “You’re not alone.”

Diane is also at the phase of life where, as loved ones age and pass, confronting death becomes common. It’s a process that can be as numbing as it is devastating, but for Diane it’s a quiet catalyst for change, where something as simple as a journal of poetry becomes a personal confessional.

For all of the film’s angst, it culminates to a very satisfying climax of grace and repentance, forgiveness and acceptance, yet still sobered with a poignant coda.

In “Diane,” we see that the most important part of taking care of yourself is to be honest with yourself. Only then can we reconcile the mistakes of our life, while we still have it.

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