There’s something wrong with Aunt Diane — that’s one of the last things Schuler’s 8-year-old niece, Emma Hance, worriedly told her father by cellphone as the minivan sped hither and then yon, minutes before Schuler got on the Taconic going the wrong way. By then, they’d been on the road for more than four hours.
“There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane” is also the title of Liz Garbus’s grievously mesmerizing HBO documentary airing Monday night. Ostensibly an objective inquiry into the tragedy, the film is perhaps better interpreted as a study in the infinite and even seemingly inappropriate ways that people experience profound grief.
If you come here looking for answers to this much-discussed event (which briefly preoccupied Larry King and other members of the cable and Internet commentariat), you will leave deeply unsatisfied and possibly smoldering with disgust. If you can stomach the material, then watch. If you can’t — and I include a special caution to those who’ve lost loved ones to a drunk driver or any vehicular crash — then it’s time to change the channel.
Still, it’s hard to look away from what Garbus has attempted here. “There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane” is the most unforgettable and hauntingly rendered documentary to come from HBO so far this year; at the same time, it is an example of the documentary format at its most fraught and incomplete.
Garbus, whose credits include “Bobby Fischer Against the World” (which aired in June on HBO), gained tentative access to the Schuler family to make this film.
We watch as Schuler’s husband, Daniel, and his brother’s wife, Jay, agree to talk about the incident and its aftermath, but only because they remain convinced that the coroner’s findings were somehow wrong. They hope Garbus and her crew will turn up new evidence to refute the irrefutable — that Diane was profoundly drunk — and to somehow partially restore the reputation of the woman they thought they knew.
Garbus cautions the family that the film may have the opposite result. Part of what saves “There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane” from total despair is its structure as a work in progress and its willingness to bring the viewer along on the search. Diane’s brother and his wife — who lost all three of their children in the crash — declined to participate in the film and have severed contact with the Schuler family, but Garbus was able to interview the relatives of the men in the SUV.