Kent Jones is a respected, even revered, figure in film circles, as a programmer for the New York Film Festival and as the writer-director of such documentaries as “A Letter to Elia” and “Hitchcock/Truffaut.”
Jones makes a promising feature debut with “Diane,” a naturalistic portrait of service and self-sacrifice by way of a quietly astonishing title performance by Mary Kay Place. Based in large part on the women who surrounded Jones during his childhood in western Massachusetts, “Diane” centers on a widow and mother who is in near-constant motion doing for others, whether it’s visiting her fatally ill cousin in the hospital, dropping off food for a laid-up neighbor, doling out macaroni and cheese at her church’s soup kitchen or, in the film’s rawest moments, letting herself into the apartment of her son, Brian (Jake Lacy), to make sure he hasn’t relapsed back into drug addiction.
Filmed with stealth and delicacy, “Diane” never takes lurid advantage of the obstacles facing its sturdy, stoic heroine. Impassive under a mousy brown wig, Place avoids playing the martyr, instead infusing her character with disarming common sense, even when she succumbs to bouts of self-pity (and a few too many margaritas). But in time, something of a mystery begins to develop, suggesting that Diane is driven by penance as much as an innate sense of altruism. What starts out as a Bressonian study in simplicity takes on the thornier contours of Kenneth Lonergan’s exercises in subtext and misdirection.
Interestingly, like Lonergan’s debut, “You Can Count on Me,” Jones’s “Diane” was executive produced by Martin Scorsese — an impressive vote of confidence from a far more splashy, self-consciously expressive artist. Attuned to the rhythms of a very specific swath of semirural life in the post-Rust Belt Northeast, with its unremarkable restaurants, aging houses and cramped, crowded kitchens, Jones understands how people fill their days and look out for one another. He also displays an uncanny sense of how time works, zooming past entire years with no warning, much like years tend to do.
Those shifts might alienate some viewers, as will a story that is almost adamant in its downbeat allegiance to realism. But as sad as “Diane” often is, it also offers its own hard-won optimism. For the religiously observant, “Diane” might be the perfect Lent movie: Although we never see the title character attend church, she offers a radiant if self-effacing example of evangelism, not as proselytizing but as faith in action.
What’s more, Jones’s compositions — often dominated by circles of women gathering around people in various forms of transition — pays tribute to the people who do so much of the invisible, unsung work of holding families together and, when necessary, letting them go. Thanks to Place’s down-to-earth, unaffected performance and the filmmaker’s own sensitivity, “Diane” grows in scope and sensibility, taking on the epic dimensions of time and the unbreakable ties that bind. In hewing so closely to life — in all its frailty and fellowship, its perseverance and mutual care — Jones has made something larger than life.
Unrated. At Landmark’s Bethesda Row and E Street cinemas. Contains brief profanity, drug use, smoking and adult themes. 96 minutes.